Obama's legacy in South-east Asia

Nov 8 marks the close of a tumultuous presidential election campaign in the United States. As the end of incumbent President Barack Obama's administration nears, six scholars working with the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the Obama legacy in South-east Asia, and examine challenges for the incoming administration. In the first of this two-part series written for The Straits Times, we feature perspectives on Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Tomorrow, we will publish viewpoints on Thailand and Vietnam, as well as an assessment of US engagement with Asean.


The friendliest US president to Asean

Tang Siew Mun, Senior fellow and head of the Asean Studies Centre

President Barack Obama is held in high regard in the region, especially in Indonesia, where he lived from 1967-71. Undoubtedly the most South-east Asia-friendly president, he has visited all but one state during his term of office. He would have completed the full "Asean circuit" if not for the cancelled visit to Brunei in 2013 to attend to the pressing business of averting the looming shutdown of the US government.

In all fairness, Mr Obama's legacy goes beyond notching up frequent flier miles. He put South-east Asia firmly on the US foreign policy agenda. The pivot strategy, later rebranded as "rebalancing", provided the reassuring antidote to the George W. Bush administration's eight years of benign neglect.

The Obama administration owes its successes in the region to its focus on the larger strategic picture and downplaying sensitive issues, such as democracy and human rights. While this pragmatic approach allows the US to reach out and forge closer relations with Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam, it has not been as successful with the Philippines and Thailand.

In fact, the new administration will have to work hard at regaining support from its two South-east Asian security treaty allies, both of which have been leaning ever closer to China in recent times.

Under Mr Obama's leadership, the US acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009 and, two years later, joined the East Asia Summit (EAS), the region's premier strategic forum. US participation in the EAS is a game-changer, providing an institutional anchor for the US leadership to gain invaluable face-time with regional leaders. It also paved the way for the US to join the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, expanding the US security repertoire from its traditional bilateral focus to multilateral engagements.


It remains to be seen if the rebalancing strategy will survive past the Obama administration. The stellar work it has put in over the last eight years appears to be unravelling. The economic pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership , appears "dead in the water" in the face of an uninterested Congress and opposition from both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates. The military pivot is also under severe stress with the Philippines' recent and unexpected swing away from Washington. The signs are ominous.

However, South-east Asia remains pivotal to the US for two reasons.

First, South-east Asia holds more than US$200 billion (S$277 billion) in US foreign direct investment assets. Second, the US can ill-afford to put South-east Asia on the back burner if Washington wants to avoid handing regional primacy on a silver platter to its strategic rival, China. The new administration will be under tremendous pressure to find new ways to reassure jumpy Asian partners of Washington's strategic endurance and commitment to the region.

US-Indonesia partnership: Adjusting to new domestic and international realities

Evan A. Laksmana, Researcher, Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta

When President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, he was expected to take US-Indonesia relations to the next level. Indeed, many believed that his personal connection to Indonesia boosted the bilateral relationship as the centrepiece of his administration's rebalance or pivot to Asia.

Indonesia was then led by president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had a keen interest in regional and global affairs. Both of his foreign ministers, Mr Hassan Wirajuda and Mr Marty Natalegawa, were also avowed internationalists and took the country's regional and global profile to new heights.

With their interests converging in 2010, both presidents signed the landmark US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership agreement covering the fields of political and security affairs, economic development, and sociocultural, educational and science and technology issues. Last year, this framework was upgraded to a "strategic partnership".

The US-Indonesia relationship flourished, particularly on the political and security fronts. Military-to-military relations were fully restored and capacity- building programmes, from arms modernisation to personnel training, soared as joint activities rose to over 200 annually.

Washington also backed Jakarta's regional leadership and global peacekeeping and economic profile. Mr Obama's intensive focus on Asean, including the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and attending the East Asia Summit, left a strong multilateral imprint in the bilateral relations.

In terms of economics, the relationship gradually grew without fanfare. By last year, US goods and services trade with Indonesia reached US$29 billion (S$40 billion). The economic relationship's overall value was estimated to be over US$90 billion annually.

Educational exchanges, on the other hand, were underwhelming, with about 8,000 Indonesians studying in the US, which is minuscule for a country of over 250 million people. By comparison, roughly 63,000 Koreans and 18,000 Vietnamese are enrolled in US universities. Other people-to- people exchanges have only recently got off the ground.

Indonesia was not just another front in the war on terror, as the Bush years suggest. Under Mr Obama, the US saw Indonesia as a strategic partner for its democratic credentials, economic growth, regional leadership and global profile. Mr Obama's biggest Indonesia legacy is the bilateral partnership framework that sought to strengthen state-to-state and people-to-people relations.

The test for the next president is how to grow that framework under less-than-ideal circumstances in Jakarta, where President Joko Widodo is less of an internationalist than his predecessor.

For example, even though the maritime cooperation agenda between the countries announced last year is paramount, Washington needs to answer some tough questions. How will both countries increase cooperation and joint exercises against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in areas like the Natuna Islands, bordering the South China Sea, without raising regional tension? Can Washington deliver its promise of commercially-driven co-development and co-production of military equipment?

With Asean increasingly fractured on the South China Sea issue, and with alliance pressures mounting, the regional grouping's place in the rebalance strategy is under intense scrutiny. More importantly, without a pro-active partner in Jakarta, how can Washington encourage Indonesia's regional or global leadership?

With Indonesia seemingly withdrawn from the regional and global stage, it is up to Washington to deepen the strategic partnership. How the new president recalibrates the existing political and security agenda, invests in long-term people-to-people relations and crafts new initiatives expanding civil society participation will determine whether the partnership will outlast Mr Obama's departure.

US-Malaysia relations: In search of a new balance

Tang Siew Mun, Senior fellow and head of the Asean Studies Centre

US-Malaysia relations reached new heights that few would have imagined possible during the Obama administration, surpassing the plateau during his predecessor's term.

US-Malaysia relations had remained frosty until Prime Minister Najib Razak made the conscious decision of reaching out to the US, a point reinforced by the appointment of his trusted political confidant, Mr Jamaluddin Jarjis, as Malaysia's envoy to the US with ministerial status in 2009. The friendly mood towards the US in Putrajaya did not go unnoticed in the White House as Malaysia was hailed as a moderate Islamic nation and a potential ally in the war against terrorism and religious extremism.

Mr Obama and Datuk Seri Najib developed a personal chemistry and got along well socially, culminating in a round of golf in Hawaii during the former's Christmas holidays in 2014.

The warm personal ties at the top trickled down to other levels of government. For the first time in the nation's history, Malaysia was able to break the shackles of domestic politics and engage the US openly. This was evident in its participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations in 2010, and its entry into the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative in 2014. The same year, Mr Obama became the first sitting US leader to visit Malaysia since president Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

The Obama administration will be remembered for substantially elevating Malaysia's role in international affairs. In inviting Mr Najib to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, Mr Obama gave Malaysia a voice on an issue dear to Malaysian diplomacy. He also acknowledged the role of small states like Malaysia in international affairs through support of Mr Najib's initiative of the Global Movement of Moderates.

Mr Obama's most significant legacy in bilateral relations lies in his pragmatic approach when dealing with Malaysia. Rather than nitpicking and amplifying faults in Malaysia's less-than- stellar human rights record, rising ethnic tensions and religious intolerance, the US focused on positive aspects of the relationship. The upgrading of Malaysia's standing from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in the US Department of State's Trafficking in Persons Report to facilitate Malaysia's participation in the TPP negotiations is a case in point.

But the warm relationship may not be sustainable. For starters, the personalised "good vibe" diplomacy between Mr Obama and Mr Najib will not outlast their respective terms in office.

Second, the new administration would want to be more prudent in keeping Mr Najib at arm's length as long as the latter's legal and political woes associated with the controversial 1MDB state fund scandal persist. The US will have to find new partners within the Malaysian establishment to continue the path laid by Mr Najib.

Moving forward, the TPP's fate will resonate strongly in Malaysia as Mr Najib staked his political fortunes on pushing through the agreement against intense opposition, including from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Although bilateral trade rose 36 per cent from US$34.2 billion (S$47.4 billion) in 2009 to US$46.8 billion last year, it still hovers below the US$50 billion mark reached in 2006. Consolidating and expanding the US' economic engagement will be a challenge and matter of priority for the new administration.

While Mr Najib is unlikely to do a "Duterte" on the US, pressure to prop up the nation's flagging economy will compel Malaysia to move closer to China at the US' expense. In addition, the 1MDB scandal will counteract any forward momentum for US-Malaysia relations as the new US administration will bide its time for the ongoing investigations to play out. In the meantime, US-Malaysia relations will vacillate between being on "auto-pilot" mode and in a limbo without a clear sense of direction.

Philippines-US relations: A legacy that may disappear

Malcolm Cook, Senior fellow

President Benigno Aquino came to office in 2010, when the first-term Obama administration was developing its Asian rebalance policy that sought closer and more equal relations with US allies and security partners in the region. As shown by the warmth of their embraces at the Apec Summit in Manila and the US-Asean Summit in California last year, the two leaders formed a close bond. Their shared security concerns in relation to China led to the revitalisation of the US-Philippine alliance, with the US being granted greater access to a number of Philippine military bases and the Philippines a significant increase in US military assistance.

Closer ties between the two governments with a focus on the South China Sea chimed well with Philippine popular views of the US. At the end of President Aquino's term last June, 81 per cent of Filipinos expressed much trust in the US against only 9 per cent expressing little trust. The legacy of President Obama and the US' rebalance policy in the Philippines looked very bright.

Four months after the end of the Aquino presidency, the US' oldest and most dependent security ally in East Asia is its most problematic.

President Obama has chosen not to deal with new President Rodrigo Duterte, cancelling their first planned meeting on the sidelines of the Asean Summit last month. It is unlikely that a meeting will be scheduled at the Apec Summit next month, given the Philippine President's suggestion that his American counterpart should visit hell.

Assuming President Duterte completes his single six-year term, the next US president will have to deal with him for the duration of their first term: President Hillary Clinton, if elected, would likely find him a handful, unlike President Donald Trump.

US government statements of concern about the conduct of President Duterte's war on drugs have sparked the latter's fusillade of foul-mouthed tirades against the US and President Obama. The Philippine chief of police has recently called for an

extension of the war on drugs and expanding it to other areas of crime. It looks like this crusade with its high and mounting number of deaths will continue for the foreseeable future. A Clinton administration would undoubtedly continue the US policy tradition of expressing concerns about human rights abuses overseas and showing support for the victims. A Trump administration could well take a different line and remove or reduce a major irritant for President Duterte with Washington, DC.

The Duterte administration's independent foreign and security policies - defined as a separation from the US and embracing China and Russia - are turning the Philippines from an ardent supporter of the US rebalance to Asia to a detractor. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014 provides US forces access to a number of strategically located bases. President Duterte has publicly considered rescinding this agreement. If carried through, it would be a major South-east Asian blow to the US rebalance policy that Mrs Clinton championed as secretary of state.

Given that Mr Trump has repeatedly questioned the rationale for the US' post-World War II policy of forward defence and the network of security allies and partners it requires, it is likely that the rebalance policy and focus on strengthening alliances and security partnerships in East Asia would end under a Trump presidency.

The next US president will have to deal with Mr Duterte's tirades and their potential translation into policy or redefine US policy in such a way that the conduct of the Philippines will not impede its goals in South-east Asia. The former is more likely than the latter.

Alas for President Obama, his legacy in the Philippines may disappear before he leaves the Oval Office.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2016, with the headline Obama's legacy in South-east Asia. Subscribe