Although a subject of minimal debate during the presidential campaign, foreign policy is already back on the agenda as President Barack Obama makes his first official visit of his second term to Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand from November 17-20.
While the choice of this region as the president's first trip is a clear statement on Washington's Asia-Pacific strategy, many of us working in these countries see it as nothing short of a historic opportunity.
The timing of the trip is crucial. Slipping in between the media distractions of the Petraeus scandal and the upcoming fiscal cliff, the president is signaling a renewed commitment to the region, extending a steadying hand to the uncertain transition to democracy in Myanmar, bolstering the elected government of Thailand against the threat of another military coup and likely offering a clean slate to Xi Jinping, the newly appointed leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Relations with China have soured rapidly in recent years, and while both parties are interested in maintaining a functional and peaceful working relationship, Washington has struggled to balance China's growing presence in Southeast Asia.
The United States and China suffer from what author Minxin Pei describes as "mutual strategic distrust." The past four years have been one of China's most assertive periods in international relations since Deng Xiaoping's "gentle rising," punctuated by ambitious military growth, naval showdowns, cyber warfare, ongoing trade disputes, currency manipulation and the very real threat of war with Japan over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands.
Obama's goal will likely be to open the doors to the settlement or détente of territorial issues with Japan, while at the same time drawing a firm line aimed at deescalating regional tensions. But there's an opportunity during this trip to refine and diversify American options for the future.
Throughout Obama's first term, Washington inherited a longstanding but one-dimensional strategy based on the "Asia Pivot." The pivot has been defined by an increased military engagement with select members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This past June, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. plans to base 60 percent of U.S. warships in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, "to be agile, to be quickly deployable, to be flexible" -- which was a clear sign to China that its saber-rattling would not be tolerated.
The big problem with the pivot is not only that China negatively views it as a containment policy, but also that by focusing mainly on military relations with ASEAN countries the United States is missing out on building meaningful economic and political ties with wider local populations beyond ASEAN's leadership.
That's why Obama's engagement with Burma will be watched so closely during this trip. The visit represents a massive gamble by the president that the Burmese leadership is serious about the transition to democracy -- which, by definition, has also been a transition away from China. President Thein Sein has been playing the part: just this week 452 political prisoners were granted amnesty, while some observers are prematurely comparing Thein's rapprochement with Nobel-prize winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and South Africa's release of Nelson Mandela.
But the Burmese leadership is turning its back on China for different reasons. Many observers point to China's mishandling of several major investments, as well as the negative perceptions of exploitation. Whether or not Thein's embrace of Obama's rights-based discourse is genuine or not remains to be seen, so the United States will be pressing hard to show their appreciation and underscore the benefits of the transition.
In Thailand, the U.S. head of state arrives at yet another tumultuous moment, as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing no-confidence challenge in parliament backed by a minority elite and royalist faction. Democracy is in danger, as active duty military officers such as General Boonlert Kaewprasit and Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri are leading an extremist movement known as Pitak Siam, whose stated goal is the violent overthrow of the elected government, and, if necessary, to "close down the country" for a few years.
The Thai government is also debating signing a resolution to grant the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction to investigate the 2010 massacres of more than 90 protesters in Bangkok (full disclosure: I act as lawyer to the Red Shirts group, UDD). A fair and impartial investigation, in which all sides can present their case, would have the potential to change the course of Thai history. Since 1932, Thailand has experienced no fewer than four massacres alongside 11 successful coups, while a royalist dominated judiciary has allowed impunity to reign.
On both these fronts, the visit to Bangkok by Barack Obama can do much to shore up support for the Yingluck government against anti-democratic forces in the country.
Many Asian leaders are prepared to take the United States seriously, and even more so if our interest in their respective countries extends beyond military bases and security in counterbalancing China, and looks to engage on more issues. The values-based framework of engaging the Asia-Pacific region therefore must be more substantive than the pivot, which in the long term will expand Washington's range of options.
Given the hugely symbolic opportunity of this being the first trip of the second term, a practitioner of realpolitik like Obama should aim to exceed expectations.