BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) Will North Korea be the issue that will restore amicable US-Asean relations?
Some opinion makers in the United States feel acute discomfort over recent developments in Southeast Asia. Thailand has yet to return to civilian rule. The Philippines is led by one of the world's most outspoken anti-Americans. US criticism of Myanmar has eased since its emergence from military rule, but its path back to democracy is perilous. In this region as elsewhere, perceptions of Washington have changed considerably in a short time.
Leaders of Asean ended their latest summit in Manila amid worries among activists that ideological differences with the United States are growing.
Then President Donald Trump got on the phone.
Apparently anxious over renewed displays of aggression by North Korea, he invited Thailand's prime minister and the Philippine president to visit the White House. In a reportedly friendly chat with Prayut Chan-o-cha, both affirmed their commitment to peace in Asia. The premier must have been marvelling at the shift in attitude since the previous US administration, which condemned his coup in May 2014.
Trump's fledgling presidency has been pocked with impulsive acts and contradictory signals, so it's unwise to assume that his phone calls represented a softened stance on Washington's part about military coups or extrajudicial killings. Still, it's a safe bet that Prayut found the surprise a pleasant one and that the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte will be more prudent in his comments about America.
Diplomatic relations between the US and countries in this region have often been hampered by different standards and interpretations of political integrity. Washington is regularly accused of being "on its high horse" and trying to dictate what should be done here. Whatever amicability there was before has been replaced by a sense of ill health.
At least on the black-and-white threat posed by an armed and boisterous North Korea, America and Southeast Asia can sing the same tune. It's the grey issues that have rendered our ties tenuous. So it's a lot easier for Trump to call Duterte for a chat about nuclear North Korea than to question Manila's bloody "war on drugs". The same applies to Prayut, of course. Had Trump inquired about the timing for the next election, it would have been a diplomatic bombshell.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has said Washington wants to be "on the same page" with Asean regarding North Korea, and that takes precedence over allegations of rights abuses hampering democratic progress in the region. The two issues, however, might be connected in terms of what fosters cooperation. After all, friends can agree to disagree, whereas enemies won't even try to understand one another.
As a superpower, America is a world leader, but there are two kinds of leadership - one earned and the other imposed. Trump's phone calls assured Asean leaders their cooperation is valued.
Yet, in an age when politics differs from place to place, America must learn that leadership earned is more effective.
If the phone calls were a good start, the road ahead remains long.
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