The Straits Times says

Essential for US to pivot to world

United States President Barack Obama's tour of Vietnam and Japan served useful purposes. The rapturous welcome he received in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City exorcised the ghosts of a past when as many as a million Vietnamese perished in what they know as the "American War" and Americans refer to simply as "Vietnam". To build fresh ties with a frontline state tangled up in dealing with China's insistent territorial claims, Mr Obama lifted all restrictions on US weapon exports to its former enemy. In visiting Hiroshima, the Japanese city that suffered the world's first atomic attack, he became the first American president to do so. Both stops were important to expunge memories of old enmities, even as America seeks to cement new friendships to tackle emerging challenges to both regional security and the world order.

Will the strategic merit behind these moves and indeed Mr Obama's overall "pivot" to Asia - subsequently renamed rebalance - be acknowledged in the future as well? The rebalance had been taking shape quietly for some years at the Pentagon but was given voice publicly by Mr Obama in 2011, two years after China submitted a map to the United Nations with its nine-dash line that laid claim to most of the South China Sea. While American media portrayed the rebalance as aimed at China, America's "first Pacific President", as he described himself, persisted in engaging the Chinese, including hosting President Xi Jinping to a four-eyes summit in Sunnylands, California.

Alongside, he also worked on building the non-military part of the pivot, notably the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement that ropes in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore alongside eight other nations and the US. In actively promoting the TPP, the Obama administration braved vast domestic opposition from quarters that consider the trade deal's advantages too tilted to nations exporting to the US. Indeed, Mrs Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama's former secretary of state who is now running for the presidency, has reversed her support of the TPP after being one of its most voluble proponents. With all three candidates left in the race ostensibly against the TPP, there is reason to fear the fate of this bold initiative.

What would bode ill for all is a sharp swing in American opinion against the need to engage with the world, in particular with Asia which is home to two-thirds of the globe's population. It is vital for the next American president to stay the course charted painstakingly by Mr Obama, and not allow isolationist sentiments, affixed on a pivot back home, to influence his or her judgment. Disengagement might embolden major powers like China, which has placed weapons on some of the artificial islands it has created after promising not to. To help maintain a strategic balance in the region, the US must rebalance itself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Essential for US to pivot to world'. Print Edition | Subscribe