Senior Fellow Kantathi Suphamongkhon discusses a series of Asian issues in light of President Obama's trip to Southeast Asia following his re-election.
Published November 19, 2012
By Kantathi Suphamongkhon
From time to time, we think of what we have done which may have an impact on others years later. I am now reminded of an example of this.
Back in April 2005, I attended an Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat in Cebu, Philippines, as the Foreign Minister of Thailand.
The assumption at the beginning of our meeting was that the East Asia Summit (EAS), scheduled to have its first meeting later that year, would be composed of 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), plus China, Japan and South Korea, and no more.
That morning, I proposed the possible expansion of membership of the EAS, which opened the door to the United States' participation, resulting in President Barack Obama's trip to Southeast Asia from yesterday until tomorrow to attend the EAS, as well as to visit Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Thailand is the first foreign country President Obama has visited since his re-election on Nov 6.
Mr Obama will also be the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar, a previously isolated country with recent promising concrete moves toward democracy.
He will also be the first US president to visit Cambodia, the host of this year's EAS.
Mr Obama's visit to Thailand marked the 180th anniversary of the relationship between the US and Thailand.
He had an audience with His Majesty the King in Bangkok and met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
As a strategic partner and the oldest treaty ally of the US in Asia, there was much for the two leaders to discuss.
Thailand fought alongside the US in the Korean War as well as the Vietnam War. Cobra Gold, the annual US-Thai military exercise in Thailand, which began in 1982, has now expanded to include the participation of many countries in broadening areas of joint activities, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. This helped prepare for effective disaster relief activities in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
Myanmar has been invited to become an observer at Cobra Gold next year, another significant development.
The US and Thailand have worked together as strategic partners in a comprehensive way.
This includes disaster relief activities during recent natural catastrophes in the region, trade facilitation, intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation.
Thailand's recent arrest and extradition to the US of Viktor Bout, the accused and now convicted Russian arms dealer, is another concrete example of law enforcement cooperation between the US and Thailand.
Working together with the US, Thailand in 2003 arrested Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, known as Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant in Southeast Asia.
After the US warned Thailand of a possible terrorist attack on Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in January of this year, Thailand arrested a number of suspected terrorists carrying Iranian passports and in possession of bombs, thereby preventing any attack.
Thailand is interested in discussing the US proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am hopeful that Thailand will officially join the US-initiated Proliferation Security Initiative during President Obama's visit.
This would enable Thailand to participate fully in the international community's action to stop the flow of weapons of mass destruction.
I also expect the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-US Defence Alliance to be signed this month.
Thailand wants to see an enhanced US role in the region after a long absence during the George W Bush years, opening the door for others to try to fill the void.
All that changed with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is important to make sure that this enhanced US presence is designed for the mutual benefit of all concerned and not just to contain any power in particular.
The South China Sea territorial disputes are delicate and the collective approach to solving this problem between Asean and China should be continued.
I hope to see the conclusion of the negotiation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea soon.
Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is very important. It would be helpful if the US finally ratifies the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, despite its misgivings regarding the convention's provisions on the exploitation of deep seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction.
Overall, I want to see the enhanced use of US soft power in the region. If used properly, no other state can match US soft power capabilities.
In Myanmar, Mr Obama will meet President Thein Sein as well as with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This will endorse and encourage significant moves toward genuine democracy in a country that had once been one of the world's most isolated.
At the EAS in Cambodia, Mr Obama will have a chance to discuss topics of importance to the Asia-Pacific region with all participants, including Chinese leaders.
The topics for discussion will likely include the subjects of the South China Sea; ways and means to increase connectivity within Asean and beyond; trade and investment facilitation including further commitment to avoid protectionism; cooperation on rapid disaster relief activities; the protection of the environment; cooperation on public health issues including the prevention of the spread of contagious diseases; and cooperation to suppress cross-border crimes including terrorism, human trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
I wish Mr Obama much success on his first trip abroad after a successful re-election at home.
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Published: Monday, November 19, 2012