ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders and the private sector

November 29, 2015

COMMENT: It is true that ASEAN has come a long way, makingDin Merican@Rosler considerable inroads in its effort to bring together all peoples in Southeast Asia. Since its founding in Bangkok in 1967, it has grown into an organisation that is taken seriously by Australia, China, the European Community, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and other nations.

All ASEAN leaders and officials too are working hard on the basis of mutual trust and renewed self belief in the pursuit of peace, sustainable socio-economic development, and cooperation.

Success poses a challenge, one of managing high expectations from the business sector, civil society and the people. Right now, the ASEAN Secretariat is working on a shoe string budget and with limited professional staff. It is time for the secretariat to be strengthened. While we should avoid being another Brussels, we should at least ensure that the secretariat is given the resources needed to carry out its awesome tasks more effectively.

One of its biggest challenge is how to bridge the development gap between the original ASEAN-5, Brunei, and the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam). It is time for ASEAN Leaders to consider the creation of an ASEAN Development Fund for the development of the CLMV region. Enough with the rhetoric and let us put money where it counts since high-sounding words and slogans are meaningless.

Laos as the next chair can take the initiative to propose this idea as part of its agenda in 2016-2017. Make the ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together document a living reality.

It is necessary for the private sector to take a very proactive role in promoting cross borders investments and intra-regional  trade since ASEAN is a huge market of some 300 million people with rising incomes due to strong economic growth. So, I expect dynamism, entrepreneurship, and risk taking from the private sector since the ASEAN Free Trade Area is in existence.

An effective partnership between ASEAN governments and the private sector is vital if we are to promote economic integration and give meaning to the big ideas  as contained in the aforementioned ASEAN 2025 documents.

I welcome Dr. Munir’s idea that we should ” [T]each ASEAN history.University_of_Cambodia Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees”. More than that is required.  For example, at the University of Cambodia’s Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations with which I am actively involved as Associate Dean and Professor of Political Philosophy and International Relations, on the initiative of our President, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn we are offering ASEAN studies at the Doctoral and Masters levels.

Dr Kao Kim HournThe University also organises courses leading to degrees in English Literature and Humanities, and conducts English-speaking courses for young Cambodians. All our degree courses are conducted in Khmer and English.

The University has established an ASEAN Leadership Center which has received books, research papers, reports, and publications from the ASEAN Secretariat, some ASEAN countries, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and friends and associates.We need contributions and support for our resource center, and grants for research in ASEAN studies.

We hope to form collaborations with reputable universities  and public policy schools in our region  and beyond for capacity building and faculty exchange. It is our intention to welcome researchers and scholars to our campus in Phnom Penh.

There is  a lot of work to advance the ASEAN Economic Community project. From here on,  ASEAN will be judged by results. Will we take the challenge or are content with business as usual with countless meetings, golf,  and durian eating sessions and expensive dinners funded by taxpayers; money? –Din Merican

ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders  and the private sector to move purposefully FORWARD

by Dr. Munir Majid*

Najib and ASEAN Leaders

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.–Dr. Munir Majid

The region has come a long way and can point to many achievements, says Dr. Munir Majid of the London School of Economics.

ASEAN is an association of states seeking to become a community of nations. There is no surrender of authority or sovereignty to any ASEAN supranational body. ASEAN works by consensus. Every member state in the association has to agree before any agreement can be said to have been concluded.

Yet ASEAN has come a long way and can point to many achievements. Many agreements on greater integration have been concluded. And there have been no major conflicts between or among ASEAN states since the association’s establishment in 1967 precisely to achieve peace and stability so that there can be economic and social progress.

The absence of war is a good sign of the ethic of cooperation which points to potential formation of community. While there can be debate over how much the existence of ASEAN contributed to the avoidance of conflict, it cannot be denied meeting regularly and working together towards regional cooperation provide strong incentives towards peaceable rather than conflictual relations.

In the economic sphere there is the ASEAN Free Trade Area whatever the non-tariff barriers that may be said to exist as indeed, they exist everywhere in the world. While much has been made of the unsatisfactory level of ASEAN trade, since the AEC 2007 Blueprint it has increased by US$1 trillion, and at US$2.5 trillion the 24% share is well above that of second placed China at 14%.

The single market and production base is well on its way. With size and growth of ASEAN economies expected to achieve 7% above baseline by 2025 through greater integration, and the reshuffling of manufacturing and services base from economic development, a greater complementarity that is currently not the case will definitely boost intra-ASEAN trade further.

ASEAN's Time

Just imagine if there was better progress in the flow of investment and capital and of skilled labour as well, ASEAN would surely be on the way towards becoming that fourth-sized global economy which even now attracts more FDI (foreign direct investment) than China, an 11% share of total global flows, when not too long ago it was the fear that ASEAN would fall between the two stools of China and India.

Another positive development not often credited, on the socio-cultural side, is the participation of social activists and NGOs in the ASEAN decision-making process who would otherwise not get the time of day in a number of national jurisdictions.

These groups and activists interact with leaders, ministers and officials at ASEAN summits – like the one a week ago – and also organise their own events and activities. As the ASEAN Business Advisory Council chair this past year, I have also been trying to accommodate them at private sector meetings, as there are many issues, such as treatment of migrant labour and responsible business practice, which have a bearing on the economy that need to be thrashed out. They are not political or purely social issues alone.

Of course no one is satisfied. Not the geopolitical strategist, the businessman or the social activist. When you call yourself a community, you raise expectations. You cannot expect to go round telling everyone to be grateful for small mercies. You have promised them big.

Dr Munir MajidWhenever I am asked about the ASEAN community or the AEC, by local or foreign media representatives, the question is always framed in a skeptical manner. There is a lot of cynicism whatever the leaders and officials say.

Even when the numbers are thrown out, there is suggestion that they would have been attained without ASEAN integration which is characterised more by what has not than what has been achieved.

Even businessmen who have benefited by what has been achieved complain about all those barriers that remain. So do social activists who are dissatisfied particularly by human rights violations in the region which do not obtain ASEAN reprimand and by evident inability to work together to address transnational problems such as the smog (euphemistically called the haze).

There is no sense of being ASEAN, especially among the people the governments are supposed to serve. Simple things that can make them feel ASEAN have been outstanding for years. As usual, it is felt, it is big business that is getting the lion’s share of the integration attention.

If this distance between what the people feel – or not feel – and the high level integration process continues the ASEAN community will be nothing but hyperbole.

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.

So many have been suggested so many times in so many reports. If by the end of its first year the ASEAN community does not see these simple things materialising, its future development will be bleak. No point talking about a milestone in a process if the process at the people level does not move.

The 27th ASEAN summit ended last Sunday with a lofty declaration full of many promises. The ASEAN 2025 document pushes out much of the unfinished business while being loaded with some highly qualitative objectives for the next 10 years.

If with the quantitative ASEAN falls short, how will it do with the qualitative? There was a great sense of urgency running into the end of 2015. Now that’s over, however what has been achieved is felt and perceived, is there going to be a similar drive now that there are 10 years to play with?

Every ASEAN summit promises something. This last one of course the most. About community. After the song and dance, and the lofty declarations and linking of arms, ASEAN decamps. Everyone goes home. It feels like the morning after the night before.

But there is so much work to be done. There must be continued drive. Not just Laos, the next chair of ASEAN.

All member states. Association and community. High level and people-centric. Official and private. Relaxed and delirious. Developed and much less developed. Politically stable and not so stable. Closer to China and closer to the US.

There are always two parts to ASEAN. Diversity is a challenge. Convergence does not come of itself. The community must not have a split personality.

Where the differences have been most pointed is with regard to China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. ASEAN Foreign Ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in July 2012, exposing the fissures in the association on the matter. What will happen in 2016 when Laos takes the chair?

The most work has to be done where the greatest differences exist. The South China Sea is one such area. The foreign ministries have to work to fashion what can be a common position, and not just rush in and out of negotiations. Who is taking the lead, many people wonder.

So much work remains to be done. So many differences remain among member states. Without drive and leadership ASEAN will not get anywhere just because the ASEAN community has been inaugurated. ASEAN can have no morning after the night before.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

ASEAN Civil Society welcomes the Launch of ASEAN Community with reservations

November 23, 2015

ASEAN Civil Society welcomes the Launch of ASEAN Community with reservations

For the peoples of ASEAN, this long-awaited moment is met with some disappointment.While the documents signed are replete with language premised on a people-centred community that belongs to all, there remains serious scepticism on the part of civil society as to what the agreements reached and commitments made by ASEAN governments will actually mean for human rights, democracy, development and environment  for the ASEAN peoples.


The ASEAN Civil  Society congratulates the ASEAN leaders for the launching of the new ASEAN Community. This community, our community, is what we have been looking forward to for a long time.

The 27th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits 2015 has officially signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the establishment of the ASEAN Community and the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.

Further, we have also witnessed the signing of the ASEAN Convention against Human Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Actip).

For the peoples of ASEAN, this long-awaited moment is met with some disappointment. While the documents signed are replete with language premised on a people-centred community that belongs to all, there remains serious scepticism on the part of civil society as to what the agreements reached and commitments made by ASEAN governments will actually mean for human rights, democracy, development and environment for the ASEAN peoples.

Asean Economic Community 2016

In his opening address on November 21, 2015, Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak, as 2015 chair of ASEAN, declared that Asean had stressed “community and consensus building, over the excesses of individualism and the seeking of selfish objectives”.

He added in his statement that the adoption of the ASEAN Community marked the culmination of decades of effort to integrate, cohere and to forge ahead together.

However, a dichotomy exists between the integration touted by ASEAN officials and the socially minded integration sought by civil society.

“What does this really mean for the peoples of ASEAN?” asked Jerald Joseph of Pusat Komas, chair of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF) 2015.

“Regional integration might be the goal but could it be instead selective integration, which has the potential of widening the development gaps? We recognise that this region has huge disparities in political, economic and social development and bargaining powers in the region.”

“Thus ensuring measures are in place to ensure fair representation of diverse interests of the peoples in ASEAN rather than certain dominant nations and interests of certain groups, especially the businesses and the multi-national corporations must be made a priority,” he said.

The ASEAN Community 2015 cannot focus only on integration policies which clearly provide economic and development gains without also removing its reluctance to commit to addressing issues which are deemed to infringe on national sovereignty such as internal conflict, territorial disputes, environmental degradation, treatment of minorities and human rights violations which have negative trans-boundary impacts and consequences.

Today we also witnessed the signing of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on ASEAN 2025, Forging Ahead Together, which incorporates the ASEAN Community Vision. The rhetoric around the vision claims that it will be a “bold, visionary, progressive and forward-looking document to reflect the aspirations of the next generation of ASEAN nationals”.

“A review of the document adopted falls short of the above aspirations,” said Joseph. “Despite the ambitious claim, it continues to retain mediocre ASEAN commitment.An example is the commitment to eradicating corruption which seem to focus more on ‘establishing support’, ‘developing programmes’ and ‘strengthening cooperation’, rather than actual commitment on policy and institutional changes. This is typical of ASEAN adopting the lowest common denominator as the threshold for action.”

This new vision gave the possibility of a new approach. Unfortunately it is again a missed opportunity.

The human rights agenda of ASEAN in its Vision 2025 yet again focuses too much on the promotional aspect without a solid protection framework inserted.

Civil society’s call for the mainstreaming human rights in the ASEAN Community 2015 process and in the ASEAN Vision 2015 has again been ignored or given peripheral attention.

“Commitment to human rights is again rather fragmented and established in silos in the 3 pillars’ blueprints,” said Wathshlah Naidu of Women’s Aid Organisation Malaysia, who led the drafting of the ACSC/APF 2015 statement and outcome document.

“It has not holistically addressed how Asean plans to respond to and share resources in addressing emerging issues and issues exacerbated by regional integration such as migration, asylum seekers and refugees and heightened extremism and terrorism.

“Purely addressing these regional concerns as security issues without a grounding in human rights principles and standards creates the path for continued human rights violations.”

Naidu added that “gender equality and the diversity of peoples of ASEAN are also not reflected comprehensively in the Vision.

“Eliminating all forms of discrimination and human rights violations is fundamental towards achieving regional integration that is rooted in achieving equality of all ASEAN countries and its peoples.”

Another key concern raised by civil society is the lack of meaningful and substantive participation, inclusion and representation of all peoples of ASEAN in the drafting process of the ASEAN Vision 2025.

“As civil society, we demand that ASEAN stop co-opting its peoples through its rhetoric on ‘people-centred’ or ‘people-oriented’ mantras without genuinely making the commitment and institutionalising a process where all interests of its diverse peoples are included in its policy documents and agreements through meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders,” said Soe Min Than of Think Center Singapore, who is also a member of the ACSC/APF 2015 Regional Steering Committee.

“ASEAN can only demonstrate its commitment to community building and implementation of the ASEAN Community agenda and the ASEAN Vision 2025 by ensuring engagement of all stakeholders through multifaceted dialogue, feedback and effective participation in determining and shaping the aspiration and future of the region and its peoples.”

As ASEAN moves on with its summit with various dialogue partners, ASEAN civil society again reiterates its concerns and recommendations made over the last 10 years of engagement and calls on ASEAN to escalate its responses to the interventions by the civil society.

“We look forward to strengthened solidarity, understanding and coordinated actions among ASEAN and civil society as key stakeholder for a truly ‘people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN Community’,” said Pen Somony of the Cambodian Volunteers for Society, who is also a member of the ACSC/APF 2015 Regional Steering Committee.


Tun Muhamad Ghazali Shafie is a recipient of the inaugural ASEAN People’s Award

November 22, 2015

Tun Muhamad Ghazali Shafie is a recipient of the inaugural ASEAN People’s Award

The late Tun Muhammad Ghazali Shafie was honoured at the inaugural ASEAN People’s Award. Fondly known as “King Ghaz”, he was a respected diplomat, politician and civil servant who helped shape not only the country’s foreign policy but was closely involved in the formation of Malaysia and the founding of ASEAN (in Bangkok in 1967).


Tun Ghazali was a Good Friend of the People of Cambodia

A diplomat extraordinaire, King Ghaz is remembered for helping bring an end to Indonesia’s Con­frontation and restoring diplomatic ties with Jakarta. He also negotiated the eventual surrender of the Communist Party of Malaya. He spearheaded efforts to draft the Rukun Negara (National Ideology) and formulate the New Economic Policy.

Tun Ghazali is one of 10 people or organisations selected from each of ASEAN countries to receive the award. It is conferred on outstanding and inspiring organisations or personalities that have contributed significantly in ASEAN community building. The recipients will each be awarded a financial grant of US$10,000 and a trophy.

Ghazali was born in 1922, at Kuala Lipis, Pahang and read law at the University College of Wales, Abery­stwyth. He also held a post-graduate certificate in International Studies from the London School of Econo­mics. He served as a civil servant and was Wisma Putra Secretary-General from 1959 to 1970.He held several key positions in the Government as Minister with Special Functions, Information Minister, Home Mi­­nister and Foreign Minister before retiring in 1984. Ghazali died at the age of 88 on January 24, 2010.

ASEAN: Bridging the South China Sea Dispute

November 22, 2015

ASEAN: Bridging the South China Sea Dispute

by Mergawati Zulfakar

South China Sea

Nobody wants to admit it publicly, at least on the Malaysian side that the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus meeting in Malaysia early this month nearly became a disaster.

Disagreement between the United States and China over how to address the South China Sea issue resulted in the ministers failing to issue a joint declaration outlining ­cooperation in regional security matters.

The United States and its allies had pressed for a mention of disputes in the South China Sea in the joint declaration while a senior US defence official said China had lobbied ASEAN members to avoid any reference.

South China Sea

This is not the first time maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea became an issue. ASEAN Foreign Ministers ended a meeting in Cambodia two years ago without issuing the customary joint communique as there had been disagreement over the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.

 The South China Sea is fast becoming a focal point especially since four of the six claimant countries are ASEAN members, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The other two are China and Taiwan.

This week as the 27th ASEAN Summit and related summits begin, the issue is escalating again. It will be interesting to see how as Asean chair Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak will handle leaders from China and the United States during the 10th East Asia Summit (the Asean 10 plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the US).

Should the host country downplay the issue as it doesn’t want to get the unnecessary attention of China? Well, it depends on the situation.

A senior Malaysian official said Malaysia should not sweep it under the carpet as it was a claimant country.“As chair we have to be objective, we have to be fair but we have to reflect the discussions that will take place. If the South China Sea is featured substantially in the leaders’ discussion, then it will have to be reflected in the 27th ASEAN Summit chairman statement and China will have to understand that.We do not want to isolate anybody. We have our views and perhaps ours will probably not be the same as Vietnam or the Philippines. Still, we have to acknowledge all these diverse views and it should be reflected in the statement.”

ASEAN and China have long been working on a binding code of conduct (CoC) to address numerous issues faced by claimant countries. However, only a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was finalised and signed in 2002.

The declaration reaffirms the parties’ commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international laws on state-to-state relations. It also states that ASEAN members and China should resolve disputes “by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations”.

In the last few years, China has been rather aggressive in reclaiming the area and latest reports suggest Beijing is trying to establish a de facto 12-mile territorial zone around the reclaimed area by building airstrips and other facilities for military forces.

These activities have been received with much criticism from claimant countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.

During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Kuala Lumpur in August in a joint communique issued, the ministers in criticising China had said reclamation activities carried out in the disputed area could undermine the peace, security and stability in the area.

However, in recent weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been more conciliatory in his remarks by saying China has always insisted the dispute should be resolved peacefully through talks but Beijing has a responsibility to protect the country’s sovereignty and maritime rights.

One official believed that China was so far advanced in reclamation of the area that there was no turning back. “They won’t reverse in what­ever they are doing so they can afford to be conciliatory. Now they can talk about the CoC because they have managed to change the reality on the ground, building port facilities, military buildings and even an airstrip on the islands. It is like checkmate, really,” the official said.

Another concern now is that they have widely reclaimed the area and that their authority has become more effective in the area. “So potentially their claim can over time be supported in international courts,” warned the official.

Another concern is a recent move by a US warship conducting a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol around the area claimed by Beijing.

“It is worrying really. The question is to what extent do you want to challenge China? It can turn the area into a hotspot which we have avoided all these years,” said an official.

For Malaysia, its quiet diplomacy to manage the issue has worked well so far.Kuala Lumpur has to be careful how it deals with China, which is its biggest trading partner. At the same time in recent years, Malaysia has developed solid relations with Washington.

“We do not want instability in the region and we do not know how China as a superpower will behave in future. We do not know how they will treat us and maybe it is good to have somebody to provide a check and balance,”said an official.

Barack Obama is hypocritical on Human Rights abuses in Malaysia

November 22, 2015

Barack Obama is hypocritical on Human Rights abuses in Malaysia

by FMT Reporters

Obama shakes hands with Najib

Obama and his Golfing Buddy: US interests first

BERSIH leader Maria Chin Abdullah has spoken about US President Barack Obama’s balancing act, between US concerns about human rights violations in Malaysia and US concerns with its economic relations with the country.

“We will engage on business and trade, but we will also speak on civil liberties. Don’t think we can’t do both,”– Barack Obama

Her comment came after a meeting that civil society leaders had a private meeting with the US President at the US Embassy here.

Hours earlier, BERSIH had issued a press statement urging Obama and the US government not to appear hypocritical by supporting authoritarian leaders such as Najib for the sake of US interests while also preaching about human rights to the rest of the world.

Chin said civil society leaders at today’s meeting were told by Obama that “while the US recognised the civil liberties violation in Malaysia but at the same time they have to balance the issue with the economic ties they have with Malaysia”.

In remarks quoted by Malaysiakini, she said Obama had repeated the message twice. “So that tells you quite a bit,” she said.

Although Obama’s public statements have been muted, he had told the civil society leaders that he had raised several issues with Najib at their meeting yesterday. “We will engage on business and trade, but we will also speak on civil liberties. Don’t think we can’t do both,” Obama was quoted as saying.

Najib and ASEAN Leaders

ASEAN Leaders from left to right, Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Myanmar’s President Thein Sein pose for photographs during opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, November. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Obama said he had raised human rights issues, the jailing of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the treatment of political dissidents, according to former BERSIH leader Ambiga Sreenevasan.

“I also expressed that since we met last year, the current situation has deteriorated and he listened and appreciated that we are now facing some difficulties,” said Ambiga.

Civil society leaders had also raised issues such as the RM2.6 billion deposited in Najib’s personal bank accounts, attack on human rights, selective prosecution and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The TPPA is the centrepiece of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” foreign policy in which he has sought to counter China’s growing political, economic and military strength by building economic and security alliances around the Pacific rim.

Dato’ Ambiga said Obama had assured them that the US ties with nations accused of abuses did not mean that his country was not concerned over the various issues raised against such governments.

“We raised what you would expect us to raise, which would be the corruption, 1MDB, TPPA, the arrests of civil society members…” Ambiga was reported as saying. “Since the last time he came here, things have got worse. We made that very clear… ” she said, according to the report.


Obama’s Pivot to Asia Trip overshadowed by Events

November 16, 2015

Foreign Policy: Obama’s Pivot to Asia Trip overshadowed by Events

by AFP

MANILA: US President Barack Obama arrives in the Philippines Tuesday with his much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” again overshadowed by events in Europe, the Middle East and politics at home.

Obama and King of Malaysia

Coming to Malaysia again

Obama will touch down in Manila with the world’s focus on the murderous attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group and soul searching about how to counter it in Syria and Iraq.

The long-planned Asia trip had been designed to underscore America’s role as a “Pacific power” and timed to coincide with high-profile regional summits, which Obama has made a point of attending.

“When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu,” said senior foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes half-jokingly, explaining the administration’s policy.

Before the Paris attacks, National Security Advisor Susan Rice previewed Obama’s trip as an opportunity to herald a vast trans-Pacific trade deal and efforts to promote a “rules-based order” amid tensions in the South China Sea. But Obama has spent the last few days talking about Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State, and will likely do so again with Asian leaders.

That focus may actually sit well with some Asian nations, according to Ernest Bower of Washington think-tank CSIS.“Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – have real and immediate concerns about citizens who have left to fight in Syria and Iraq and will be returning,” said Bower.

“After Paris, most Asian countries will be looking to the US for leadership in the counter-ISIS (Islamic State) fight. This will underline the US global security role.”

For his part, Obama may point to majority Muslim nations in Southeast Asia as examples of how economic development can put a lid on radicalism.

Still, another sidetracked trip to the region is a far cry from early in Obama’s term when the Hawaii-born commander-in-chief confidently declared himself “America’s first Pacific president”.

Throughout his administration, key aides have been frustrated at events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere perennially dominating presidential agendas and security briefings.In their view, populous and fast-growing Asia has, as a result, not always received the attention it deserves.

All politics is local

But events in Europe and the Middle East are not the only things holding Obama back as he arrives in Manila.The White House faces an uphill battle to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal — which would spur trade between 12 Pacific rim nations representing 40 percent of the world’s economy — through Congress.

Sources on Capitol Hill say the agreement may not be ratified until after US elections in November, 2016, or until a new president has taken office in early 2017.

Top Democrats, including Obama’s would-be successor, Hillary Clinton, have opposed the deal, while Republicans are loath to give Obama a major policy victory.

The White House is pressing its case hard, insisting there is no reason to make US business wait to reap the benefits of the deal.

Before leaving for Asia, Obama assembled some of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers from past Democratic and Republican administrations to sell the geo-political case for the agreement.

The deal is seen by some as a counterbalance to growing Chinese economic clout in the region. Beijing is not a member.

“Economically, the Asia-Pacific region is the most dynamic, the most populous and fastest-growing region of the world,” Obama said flanked by luminaries Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell.

“And strategically, it is a region that’s absolutely vital to our economic and national security interests in the 21st century.”

Congress has also thwarted White House efforts to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which experts say could strengthen Washington’s case that Asian nations must solve maritime disputes by legal means.

The accord provides the ground rules for maritime claims and passage, just as China is moving to assert greater control in the hotly contested South China Sea.

The Philippines has filed a case against China’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, using UNCLOS as its legal foundation.

“The President strongly supports ratification,” a senior administration official told AFP, referring to the agreement that has been signed, but not yet ratified by the US Senate.

Bill Bishop, author of the Asia-focused Sinocism newsletter, said the United States not ratifying UNCLOS hurt its credibility on the issue.

Bishop said the United States was currently only using a “blunt instrument” of military posturing, pointing to a US missile destroyer recently sailing close to Chinese-made artificial islands in the sea.

“It would be much better for the entire region if the US had a portfolio of options that were both hard and soft,” Bishop said.