Sometime on Wednesday, Bangkok time, the international community will find out who American voters have chosen for president. For ASEAN, it is crystal clear that the incumbent is the preferred leader.
Here are 10 reasons why ASEAN opts for Barack Obama:
- In general, ASEAN leaders want Obama to return as president so that he can take part in the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS), which will be held in Phnom Penh two weeks after the election. The seventh EAS will be one of the most important meetings between the leaders of ASEAN and the world's most powerful countries, including the US, Russia, China and India, as each country is undergoing substantive changes dictated by their own domestic and external dynamics. To ASEAN, Obama represents a continuity of US commitment to Asia.
- If the presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, wins the race, he would have no reason to travel to Southeast Asia in the near future. His first task would be to consolidate his new administrative team as well as reshape the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, focusing on Israel and Iran. If Asia matters, it is about China and Japan. ASEAN will be very low on the list.
- The ASEAN chair, Cambodia, was so excited that the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh announced on Tuesday that Obama has confirmed that he will visit Cambodia and attend the EAS. It is a clear indication that the White House is confident of his victory in the presidential race. After July's hiccup, which saw a failure to issue a joint communiqué at the end of the ASEAN annual meeting, Cambodia badly wants to demonstrate it has a neutral foreign policy towards major powers, especially the US and China.
- Both Myanmar [Burma] and Thailand are anxious to find out if Obama will confirm stopovers in their capitals during his trip to and from Phnom Penh. Advance security teams from the US have already visited the two countries to do preliminary groundwork in case of any surprise visits ahead of the EAS. The trip to three ASEAN members would be historic, especially for Myanmar. The recent reforms in the former rogue state have won praise the world over—so much so that Obama cannot just ignore them. Indeed, US-Myanmar relations are on a roller coaster. For him to come this far with visits to Cambodia and Myanmar without touching down in Thailand, a long-standing US ally, would be utterly impossible. To reinforce the pivotal role of Thailand, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is scheduled to stop over in Bangkok before heading for Siem Reap on November 15. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also visit Bangkok two days later on her way to Phnom Penh before her tenure ends.
- If there is any US president that is knowledgeable and appreciative of ASEAN, it is Obama. Over the past four years, Obama has developed a close rapport with a high level of comfort with most of the ASEAN leaders. In fact, ASEAN is thinking of scheduling another round of leaders' meetings in the future with the incumbent US president. They have met a few times previously with Obama, and their encounters produced substantive results. They gave him the confidence to deal with ASEAN leaders. It is not wrong to say that Obama helps define and sustain the US role in relations with ASEAN.
- The US re-balancing policy has won accolades among the ASEAN leaders. With the incumbent in the White House, the policy will enter its second phase with intensified US engagements with the ASEAN members in all areas. Washington's invitation to Naypyitaw to send military officials to observe the Cobra Gold military exercises next year is a clear indication of Washington's intention to augment its security cooperation with all the ASEAN members. This will be a new security toolbox for the region. With stronger US presence and commitment, the Washington-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership is gaining ground as additional ASEAN members seek to enter the negotiation process. Thailand is among them. Again, Obama's challenger would not focus on Asia as a whole, even though the last Republican president, George W Bush, did make efforts to formulate a distinctive diplomacy toward Asia and ASEAN, particularly in his second term.
- ASEAN wants a US president with a practical foreign policy towards China. Proximity to the world's second-largest economy is a source of both comfort and stress for ASEAN. The US as a balancing force is situated on the other side of the world. In the past, when China was poor and underdeveloped, it did not pose any threat. Now, ASEAN is learning how to cope anew with the world's second largest economy, which is standing tall and proud of its achievements. The Obama administration's policy towards China is both competitive and collaborative, which augurs well for the ASEAN approach to the two super dialogue partners. ASEAN will benefit from balanced approaches that provide sufficient room for them to engage and secure influence in ways that would increase the regional profile, not dampen it.
- ASEAN prefers a US leader who does not treat Russia as an enemy, as this has a direct impact on overall regional peace and stability. Russia under third-time President Vladimir Putin is returning to the region, in particular the former Indochina, where the former Soviet Union used to reign. Moscow wants closer cooperation with ASEAN and is willing to do more to enhance their relations. Visiting Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, one still can come across remnants of its once powerful presence. Back in 2005, it was Moscow that first demonstrated an eagerness to attend the nascent EAS.
- If the occupant of the White House does not change, the ASEAN leaders will have more time to contemplate the new Chinese leadership, due to be put in place next week. For the past decade, ASEAN has taken for granted that China would not act assertively and that it would be accommodative to ASEAN's interests and remain benign. Of late, the disputes in the South China Sea and its consequences have changed this long-standing perception. From now on, ASEAN, individually and collectively, will have to decipher the new batch of younger Chinese leaders and their motives toward the region. Failure to do so would further deepen mutual suspicion, which neither side can afford at this juncture.
At the ASEAN-China retreat in Pattaya at the end of October, senior officials from both sides could not agree on the exact date to kick off negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea. While the ASEAN officials were soft and positive, China, instead, delivered direct and tough words, reiterating that it would no longer hold back; any provocation would be responded to in proportion to the perceived threat by China at the time. This did not bode well for the upcoming EAS, as the issue is likely to be raised along with other territorial disputes in this part of the world.
- The ASEAN leaders, especially those from the Muslim countries, do not like Romney's more aggressive stance on attacking Iran, as they have maintained good bilateral relations with Tehran. Despite sanctions, some ASEAN members have continued to trade with Iran. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have extensive economic ties with the country.