Bush courting Asean leaders with ranch invite

NEWS ANALYSIS

Region’s ties with China, Russia spur US to re-establish strong presence.

HOME is where the heart is. For US President George W. Bush, it is at his Crawford ranch in Texas.

Over the past six years, only a select band of world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, former British prime minister Tony Blair and his successor Mr Gordon Brown, former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin have been invited to the “western White House”.

Asean leaders, if they accept the invitation extended to them by Mr Bush at a meeting in Sydney last week, will no doubt enjoy some good old-fashioned Texan hospitality.

The gesture took a long time in coming, but Mr Bush is clearly trying to elevate US-Asean ties in the face of China’s growing links in the region – and amid persistent criticism that his administration has ignored the region to focus on the Middle East.

Myanmar, however, remains a sticking point to the Texas invite.

“Inviting the Asean leaders to Crawford puts the US-Asean relationship in a special category,” noted Dr Michael Green, a former Bush aide in charge of Asia at the National Security Council. “Only the most important and closest friends get to go to Crawford.

“Just to include all 10 would be a big concession to Asean by the US government. But handling Myanmar will be tricky. If things continue to deteriorate in that country, any presence could become problematic.

“The White House will cross that bridge later. The important thing is to show how much the administration wants a higher-level relationship with South-east Asia.”

This renewed zeal on ties could be motivated by concern that powers like China and Russia are muscling into the region at the expense of the United States, against the backdrop of a perception that US engagement in Asia is declining.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s absence from the Asean Regional Forum last month was the latest incident to bolster this view.

Then came Mr Bush’s decision to postpone a trip to Singapore for a meeting with Asean leaders and to commemorate 30 years of US-Asean friendship.

The trip was to have been part of Mr Bush’s journey to Sydney for the Apec summit. It was postponed due to preparations for a report on Iraq that needs to be given to Congress this week.

Observers believe that “lack of attention” in Washington has left the door open for Chinese diplomacy and allowed Beijing to build on its clout in the region – especially economically.

China and Asean have been moving to set up a free trade area since 2002, progressively lowering tariffs on a range of goods. An Asean-US free trade agreement, on the other hand, is mired with doubts.

Russia, that old foe of the US, is also entering the fray.

Mr Putin, the first Russian leader in nearly 50 years to visit Indonesia, signed a US$1 billion dollar (S$1.5 billion) arms deal there last week, seen by analysts as part of efforts to restore Moscow’s clout in the region.

At the signing of the deal, Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono said Jakarta was happy to reduce dependence on the US – clearly causing concern for American defence planners.

That could explain Washington’s charm offensive. At Apec, Mr Bush made up ground by announcing the long-awaited appointment of a US ambassador to Asean, as well as the summit offer in Texas.

But the jury is still out on whether the Texan invite could soothe ruffled feathers in Asean. It might be too late now, with Mr Bush into his last stretch in office, argued leading South-east Asian scholar Jeffrey Winters.

He told The Straits Times: “If this invitation had been extended in the early years of the first Bush administration, the effect could have been huge. But the timing greatly diminishes the invitation’s value for both sides. It can’t hurt, but it won’t help much either.”

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