US 'rebalance to Asia has helped forge ties'

 US President Barack Obama speaks to the media during a news conference at the landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel in Vientiane, Laos on Sept 8, 2016.
US President Barack Obama speaks to the media during a news conference at the landmark Mekong Riverside Hotel in Vientiane, Laos on Sept 8, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

VIENTIANE • United States President Barack Obama has called the ties he helped forge with Asean a success of his administration's "rebalance" to Asia, and said he expected these close ties to be sustained.

"It is unprecedented, the breadth and depth of our relationships, and I think it is one of the most successful parts of our rebalance policy," he said at a press conference after the East Asia Summit yesterday that rounded off his last trip to Asia as US President. These ties will get closer in years to come, he added.

Mr Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, told reporters: "When I think back to the time that I spent here as a boy, I can't help but be struck by the extraordinary progress that has been made across so much of the region… even as there is still a lot of work to be done."

The US leader reached out to Asean shortly after taking office in 2009 as part of his foreign policy signature "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific. Apart from assuming high-level dialogue with the 10-nation bloc, he also expanded contact with individual countries.

He visited Myanmar in 2012, about two years after then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, despite criticism that such a visit was premature for a country barely emerging from some 50 years of direct military rule.

Ms Suu Kyi has since become Myanmar's de facto leader.

It was during Mr Obama's tenure that US troops - ejected from the Philippines in the 1990s - were welcomed back, as the Asean country sought to deter an increasingly assertive China from the waters it also claims in the South China Sea.

The US-Philippines relationship, however, was in the spotlight after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte used an expletive on Mr Obama when responding to a reporter's question early this week.

Though the White House cancelled a planned meeting between the presidents in Vientiane, the two leaders spoke briefly and shook hands on Wednesday.

"I don't take these comments personally because it seems as if this is a phrase he has used repeatedly… it seems to be just a habit," said Mr Obama yesterday.

He also said that while the US wants to work with the Philippines on its war on drugs, "we do want to make sure that the partnership that we have is consistent with international norms and rule of law".

Mr Obama stressed that the recent developments had "no impact" on the US' broader relationship with its treaty ally.

"And it certainly has no impact in terms of how we interpret our obligations to continue to build on the longstanding alliance that we have with the Philippines, however that may play itself out."

Tan Hui Yee

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2016, with the headline 'US 'rebalance to Asia has helped forge ties''. Print Edition | Subscribe