Shortly after the Nov. 4 congressional elections, President Barack Obama will head to Asia for a series of important summits at which he will have an opportunity to address some critical challenges facing the United States and the region.
First will be the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting at Yanqi Lake outside Beijing on Nov. 10–11. Next up will be the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Naypyidaw on Nov. 13–14. These two summits will give President Obama an opportunity to give some much-needed momentum to his administration’s rebalance to Asia, which has been drowned out by crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, before he heads to the Nov. 15–16 Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane.
As the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks drag on, trade and investment remain one of the most important components of Obama’s rebalance to Asia still to be consummated. For much of 2014, the talks between the 12 TPP negotiating countries have been stuck largely due to Japan’s inability to slash tariffs on five key agricultural products. When Obama meets Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at APEC and the EAS, he will have opportunities to discuss with the Japanese leader the courageous vision to which the latter committed his country when he brought Japan into the TPP.
Japanese negotiators often say they do not want to put their most forward-leaning market access offer on the table until they are assured that Obama will get trade promotion authority from Congress. With his last election campaign behind him after Nov. 4, the president could help remove one of Tokyo’s ostensible reasons for delaying by pledging to send trade promotion legislation to the new Congress early in 2015. For Obama to snare the TPP as a signature accomplishment of his presidency, U.S. lawmakers will likely need to pass the trade bill before mid-2015 when the next presidential election cycle will kick into full gear.
The biggest security issue facing the leaders’ retreat at the EAS in Myanmar will undoubtedly be the disputes in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has done a far better job investing in diplomacy and security than in economics as part of the rebalance, and its engagement on the South China Sea has been central to that.
In the last year, the US government has become even more forward-leaning. Secretary of State John Kerry and other high-ranking officials have begun to consistently call on all parties to clarify what they are claiming and on what basis. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Fuchs in July issued a new recommendation for the South China Sea claimants to agree to a freeze on all escalatory activities in disputed areas, including construction and oil and gas exploration. That call was immediately taken up by the Philippines, although rejected by China.
President Obama should voice strong support for both of these initiatives, and reiterate his administration’s consistent message that the South China Sea disputes must be managed and resolved according to international law and without resorting to violence.
To this end, he should press the ASEAN claimants—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—to reach a preliminary agreement to clarify their claims, agree to a mutually acceptable definition of what waters are disputed, and halt all construction and provocative actions within that area. He should also urge those claimants to embark immediately on a concerted effort to survey the disputed Spratly Islands to protect against Chinese efforts to alter the status of rocks and low-tide elevations via reclamation work.
The ministerial-level claimants meetings between Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam this year provide an ideal venue to pursue this effort, which in combination with Manila’s ongoing arbitration case will put considerable diplomatic pressure on Beijing to come to the table and clarify its positions.
Obama should offer U.S. technical assistance in these efforts, highlighting the renewed work of the State Department’s “Limits in the Sea” studies series that was restarted in early 2014 to examine the legality of coastal states’ maritime claims. On Sept. 16, the series issued new reports on the claims of Indonesia and the Philippines. The president should make explicit that the State Department intends to issue updated reports on the remaining claimant states as well, with the goal of compiling a list of outstanding areas in which the United States believes clarification is needed.
Beyond the EAS and the parallel U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Obama is also expected to have bilateral meetings with Myanmar’s leaders. As during his first visit in 2012, the U.S. president will want to laud the quasi-civilian leaders for what they have achieved since they mounted political and economic reforms in 2011. But he will also want to nudge them to keep going and to address a number of critical challenges still outstanding.
For starters, Obama will need to discuss the November 2015 parliamentary elections with President Thein Sein and the other leaders he meets. For many in Washington, and particularly in Congress, the elections will be a key indicator for measuring the success of the reforms. It looks increasingly unlikely that the parliament will revise Article 59f of the constitution, which bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because she has sons who are foreign citizens, or Article 436, which reserves for the military a quarter of the seats in the legislature.
The elections will likely be less than perfect but the extent to which they are considered free and fair will determine the level of U.S. engagement in 2016 and beyond. Obama may want to offer more assistance to capacity building for political parties and the election commission in the run-up to the elections.
Second, the president should press Myanmar’s leadership to restore emergency humanitarian assistance, including by Doctors Without Borders, to the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in the far west. Since March, when aid workers were expelled from the state, the government has not done enough to address the humanitarian disaster facing the 140,000 Rohingya quarantined since 2012 in barbed wire-enclosed camps. It has been almost impossible for them to obtain medical treatment since the foreign medical workers were forced out.
Third, Obama will want to remind Myanmar’s leaders that the international community is carefully watching the peace negotiations with the country’s armed ethnic groups. Ethnic leaders were fairly optimistic about the prospects for a settlement following talks in August, but later felt the military members of the government’s negotiating team rolled back some of their earlier commitments during talks in September.
Without a settlement with the ethnic groups, it will be tough for the country to achieve the level of economic development its leaders are hoping for. Obama should offer the strongest diplomatic support for the peace process and pledge assistance to refugee resettlement and economic assistance once an agreement is hammered out.