This week around Asia

Obama's return to Asia, Helicopter gunships moving

Former US President Barack Obama delivering his keynote speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce at the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on June 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asia is set to welcome an old friend when Mr Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States and architect of the American pivot to the region, travels to Indonesia at month-end.

Mr Obama's principal fixture is a speech to the 4th Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Jakarta on July 1.

The organisers and Mr Obama's office have agreed it will focus on globalisation, pluralism and tolerance.

Still, the trip is of more than ordinary significance because Mr Obama's policy of a strategic pivot to Asia, subsequently called rebalance, has come deeply into question after Mr Donald Trump was elected to the presidency.

In fact, the new President made American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement one of his first acts in office, clearly hurting Mr Obama's legacy.

It is believed that this will be only the second time Mr Obama has stepped out of his country after retiring from office at the end of his maximum two terms.

In April, three months after leaving office, he appeared with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss democracy and faith at the Brandenburg Gate.

As a child, Mr Obama spent some years in Indonesia with his mother and step-father, getting his first taste of dog meat, snake meat and fried grasshopper.

Former US President Barack Obama delivering his keynote speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce at the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on June 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Seven years ago, he returned there with his wife Michelle on an all-too-brief visit.

This time, Asian diplomatic sources said Mr Obama is bringing his entire family along to the land that was a part of his youth.

Mr Obama's visit to Indonesia is something of a coup for noted Indonesian diplomat Dino Patti Djalal, who chairs the Board of Trustees of the Indonesian Diaspora Network Global.

A former ambassador to Washington, Mr Dino is said to have used the good offices of Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, Mr Ben Rhodes, to corral the former President into making the long journey to Jakarta.

Details of the visit, including Mr Obama's mode of travel, are being kept secret.

According to some sources, the Obamas may travel to Seoul, South Korea, after their two-day trip to the Indonesian capital.

Mr Obama's words will be carefully heard, not only by the thousands of people invited to hear him speak, but also around the region.

Many in South-east Asia believe that Mr Obama's eagerness to get China on board with his climate change proposals led him to take a softer line with Beijing on its frenetic island-building on disputed isles in the South China Sea.

Souring Sino-India ties

The sharp dip in Sino-Indian ties over the year past increasingly threatens to be a point of major worry.

The Dalai Lama's visit to the north-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, claimed in its entirety by China; Beijing's move to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through a part of Kashmir claimed by India, and a variety of other factors have contributed to the dismal state of ties.

New Delhi also gave a cold shoulder to the recent summit hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to promote his Belt and Road initiative, drawing acid comment from Chinese media.

Now, for the first time in decades, the Indian Army is said to be moving attack helicopters to the China border.

According to the Hindustan Times newspaper, a squadron of Dhruv advanced light helicopters (ALH) will be

deployed to Assam state, in India's northeast.

What is more, the army is also said to be readying to imminently place an order for three squadrons of Apache AH-64E heavy attack choppers.

If that deal comes to fruition, India will join the US, Singapore and UAE as nations that operate the twin-turboshaft bird.

It will also underscore one more success for America to turn India into a major purchaser of its arms.

The swiftly-developing US-India strategic relationship was not initially seen as a threat by Beijing, which believed India would always prefer to be a centrist power, and avoid deep alignments.

Under Mr Narendra Modi, perceptions of India have changed, and are changing.

There is fear that India may be rushing headlong into the US camp; one reason why Beijing is taking a tough attitude with India on so many issues.

Worthy read on Asean

For those interested in Asean's history and current relevance, there perhaps is no better contemporary book than the one recently released by the distinguished Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani, and his longtime friend Jeffery Sng.

The Asean Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace forcefully and convincingly argues that Asean, despite its obvious warts, has brought peace and prosperity to a troubled region, generated inter-civilisational harmony in the most diverse corner of the earth and brought hope to many, as well as facilitating China's peaceful rise.

The authors describe Asean's movement as something like a crab's - two steps forward, one back and one step sideways.

Over a short period, progress is hard to see.

Yet seen over decades, Asean's forward march becomes visible.

If you don't believe that, try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace, or Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, emerges as a stable democracy. Inconceivable?

But that's what Asean has achieved, argue the authors.

What is more, Indonesia, the largest Asean member and one that is predominantly Muslim, has emerged as a beacon of democracy.

The authors also provide a historical tour de force of the impulses and influences that weighed on the region over history, including the Indian, Chinese and Western waves.

And they make one telling point: "One feature remained constant in China-South-east Asia relations. For centuries, the Indianised kingdoms of South-east Asia paid tribute to the emperors of China. We do not know exactly how and when this tributary system started. But we do know that the Funan kingdom was sending tributes to China as early as 500 AD... When South-east Asian rulers sent tribute missions to China, the tributes they offered would be returned with even more vaulable gifts."

Given the current climate of an assertive China that's pressing its dominance on the region through muscle-flexing at multiple levels, as well as blandishments such as the Belt and Road initiative, this is a point worth pondering.

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