America’s bid in Southeast Asia

Editorial, Normal

In the past, the Americans did not have competitors. Now they do, with China and, in time, India jostling for prominence in the region, writes KARIM RASLAN.



HAVING neglected the Asia-Pacific for much of the Bush administration, Americans appear to have rediscovered Asia. Thanks guys! But, your timing is rotten.
Indeed, the Americans have returned to the region just as we are becoming obsessed with growth and prosperity – two things the US seem to have lost.
The US, borrowing from Austin Powers, is in search of its mojo, especially now that the country is beginning to look more and more like Japan – stagnant, indebted and rudderless.
But, of course, there is a pecking order in Asia.
The really important (and wealthy) countries get a visit from the US president, whereas other nations like Malaysia (and Papua New Guinea) have to make do with the Clintons – both husband and wife.
Frankly, I do not know why we were so excited by the double-Clinton diplomacy? Should we not be refocusing our diplomacy on China?
Anyhow, Indonesia (after two postponements) has been patiently waiting for Obama’s visit.
Having spent four years as a child in Jakarta, Barack Obama’s return – one could almost call it a “homecoming” – was always going to be emotional.
But, times change. Had the US president visited Indonesia just a year ago, the reception would have been obsessive and overwhelming.
Instead, on a heavily overcast and stormy afternoon, troubled by talk of volcanic ash and airport closures, Obama landed in a country under pressure from natural disasters.
He encountered a nation no longer so enamoured of his rock-star appeal.
Do not get me wrong, though. There is still a deep fondness for “Barry” Obama, the brilliant son of Indonesianist Stanley Ann Dunham.
Even though the US president was on Indonesian soil for less than 24 hours, his presence affirmed the republic’s mounting global profile, reinforcing its G20 membership.
But, as I have noted, time’s change.
In the past, the Americans did not have competitors. Now they do; and the comparisons with the Chinese are not flattering.
Indonesia and, indeed, Southeast Asia are no longer diplomatic backwaters.
We are now part of the new “Great Game” as China, the US (and, in time, India) vie for prominence in the region.
Moreover, the jockeying is intense and determined.
Obama, for example, arrived with an array of goodies – there was money for the environment and education as well as an increase in trade guarantees.
However, only a day before Obama touched down, Wu Bangguo, the head of China’s National People’s Congress and the second most senior figure in China’s Communist Party, concluded a four-day visit to Indonesia.
Wu promised a staggering US$6.6 billion in trade and economic deals.
This money follows the mushrooming of China-Indonesia trade.
Unlike visiting Chinese leaders, Obama failed to stress the commercial potential of the archipelago.
Despite all this, it is hard not to feel buoyed by Obama’s positivity and passion.
He is a transformational figure, even if the country he is leading is fast declining.
nKarim Raslan has taken leave from his legal practice to pursue his love for writing. He recently published a collection of his newspaper columns and now writes a weekly column for The Star newspaper in Malaysia.