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What to Expect From President Obama’s Trip to Southeast Asia

Barack Obama, Yingluck Shinawatra

SOURCE: AP/Carolyn Kaster

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra talk before a meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, November 18, 2012.

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President Barack Obama is visiting Southeast Asia this week—his fifth trip to the region in four years. While there, he will continue solidifying gains from the major foreign policy hallmark of his first term—the rebalance of our focus to Asia.

While the United States has long been a Pacific power, the Obama administration is focusing more energy and resources on this dynamic region, as America winds down from a decade of war in the Middle East. The logic of the rebalance is simple: As the president’s national security advisor Tom Donilon said late last week, “America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.”

President Obama’s itinerary will take him to Thailand, one of America’s longest-standing allies in the region; Burma, where the president will try to nudge forward the government’s transition to a democracy; and Cambodia, where he will attend meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit—two key regional organizations where the United States and China both wield influence.

President Obama’s visit to Thailand marked 180 years of diplomatic relations between our two nations. The president’s meetings with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will serve to highlight one example among many over the past four years of America’s concerted efforts to deepen and broaden alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

Much ink has already been spilled on the question of whether the president is visiting Burma too soon, considering that the government still has a long way to go in liberalizing the political system, halting ethnic violence, and improving human rights. Being the first sitting American president ever to visit that country, he offered the government in Rangon the most prestigious political reward—a gesture that some have called into question.

While this is a valid concern, the trip is designed not only as a pat on the back to President Thein Sein for Burma’s “remarkable progress,” but also a push to accelerate progress in the democratization of the Burmese government. The trip is likely to further catalyze change in the Southeast Asian nation: More than 450 prisoners were released on Friday on the eve of President Obama’s trip. Most importantly, the presence of President Obama will instill confidence and pride in the Burmese who are fighting for their rights.

The Obama administration also wants to show the world what wonderful things can happen—and quickly—when a dictatorship makes the tough decision to become responsible and give its people a political voice. We’ve seen already that when regimes make irresponsible decisions away from the rules and norms of the international community, this administration will show no mercy and, in the case of Iran, has led the international community to impose crippling sanctions.

But Burma is a rare case where the United States and the international community can reward and, importantly, continue to push enlightened leadership. In some two years, Burma has gone from being a near-pariah state with little foreign investment to a promising fledgling democracy with multinationals knocking at its door and the most powerful man in the world dropping by to visit the country and check in on its progress. The administration knows that North Korea will take note of the kind of treatment it could theoretically get if it gives up its nuclear weapons program.

But the president’s last stop, Cambodia, might have the biggest regional implications.  Washington hopes that the East Asia Summit—meeting in Phnom Penh today—will grow to become the premier political forum for Asian leaders, a counterpart to the economic forum of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

At the 2011 East Asia Summit—the first one an American president attended—leaders chose to discuss the territorial tensions in the South China Sea despite China’s objection. There was hope this year that China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations might sign a “code of conduct” based on an earlier 2002 agreement, which would formalize some rules as to how countries can pursue their conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China seems to have unfortunately squashed the idea of unveiling a code of conduct at this summit. But China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are at the very least discussing a code—and even that fact is hopeful. While the United States is neutral on the eventual disposition of the territorial claims in the South China Sea, it has strong interests in the way these disputes are resolved: without coercion, peacefully, and according to international law.

President Obama’s trip to Asia showcases not only the rebalance to Asia but also the rebalance within Asia. All the countries President Obama is visiting are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and he will also meet with the leaders as a group when in Cambodia.

As Tom Donilon argued last week, we ignore Southeast Asia at our own peril. With a combined population of 600 million and, taken together, the third-largest economy in Asia—not to mention the major trade routes that pass through these countries—America has vital interests at stake in maintaining positive relations with these nations.

While the president’s time is the most precious political commodity there is, he is spending it well on this trip.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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