Mak­ing the Pivot To Asia En­dure

The U.S. has to prove it has stay­ing power to the na­tions of South­east Asia

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - BLOOMBERG VIEW -

The un­prece­dented gath­er­ing of South­east Asian lead­ers in Cal­i­for­nia can be seen as a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment for Barack Obama’s oft-dis­missed “pivot” to Asia. Now the pres­i­dent needs to lay down a frame­work to sus­tain and deepen U.S. en­gage­ment with the re­gion well af­ter he leaves of­fice.

China’s mar­itime claims in the South China Sea have driven sev­eral mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean) to si­dle closer to the U.S. Only steady, con­sis­tent en­gage­ment can over­come doubts about U.S. stay­ing power in the re­gion. Af­ter early stum­bles, Obama has set a good prece­dent by com­mit­ting the U.S. to re­gional meet­ings to forge stronger bonds.

More can be done to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize closer ties with South­east Asia, a $2.2 tril­lion mar­ket si­t­u­ated in a cru­cial part of the world. U.S. in­vest­ment in Asean na­tions—amount­ing to $226 bil­lion at the end of last year—is now more than that from China, Ja­pan, and South Korea com­bined. A new plan will set up U.S. li­ai­son of­fices in Sin­ga­pore, Jakarta, and Bangkok to work with re­gional gov­ern­ments to deepen in­vest­ment and trade ties.

The U.S. has an in­ter­est in pro­mot­ing not just open mar­kets in the re­gion but also open so­ci­eties, some­thing young South­east Asians—two-thirds of the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der 35—can be ex­pected to de­mand. Obama should re­it­er­ate U.S. sup­port for demo­cratic val­ues. Mean­while, the ad­min­is­tra­tion must look for more ways to en­cour­age lo­cal me­dia, youth lead­ers, and civil groups to change their so­ci­eties from within.

In build­ing closer ties to South­east Asia, the goal isn’t to lessen China’s in­flu­ence per se. Asean has ev­ery rea­son to take ad­van­tage of the main­land’s mar­kets and in­vest­ment. The pri­or­ity should be to es­tab­lish a trans­par­ent, rules-based or­der that al­lows the free flow of com­merce and re­in­forces sta­bil­ity. That would ben­e­fit all coun­tries con­cerned. <BW>

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