The Indonesian trip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscores a major shift in US approach in Southeast Asia. It also sent a message on how the Obama administration will prioritize its relations and the handling of these relations with the countries and governments in the region.
Indonesia has been anointed by the Obama administration as its main partner in Southeast Asia, praising it as a demonstration that “Islam, democracy and modernity can co-exist.” State Department said that the Clinton trip will “discuss the close and growing partnership with Indonesia and perspectives on common interests in Southeast Asia.”
The erstwhile close American allies–Philippines and Thailand–clearly lost out in gaining the US administration’s nod as its main partner in the region. The key factor was the state of instability of both Philippine and Thai democracies that cast doubt on their ability to lead the region in terms of American interests.
In the Philippines, the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s attacks on the democratic institutions, record of corruption and human rights violations, flirtation with China, and weak anti-terrorism stance took its toll. Within this context, it is not also in the US interest to stamp the Obama approval on GMA’s administration. The failed Obama pursuit is an ample indicator of this disenchantment.
The Obama administration–with Secretary Clinton’s overflying of the Philippines–signals that it sees the GMA regime as bereft of the “special relationship” a Philippine administration usually enjoys. A more ominous interpretation is that it will deal seriously only with the replacement administration, elected in 2010 or otherwise put in place by other political events.
Both Thailand and the Philippines need a lot of democratic cleaning up after the fiasco of failed political leadership. Will the US help? It has no choice–it has a lot of stakes in the region, as well as the rest of Asia.
Secretary Clinton describes her tour, thus “”It demonstrates clearly that our new administration wants to focus a lot of time and energy in working with Asian partners and all the nations in the Pacific region, because we know that so much of our future depends upon our relationships there.”