Thursday 25 September 2014

US cannot get distracted from Asia: Shanmugam

No other region where its influence is 'as likely to be challenged as seriously'
By Jeremy Au Yong, U.S. Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 24 Sep 2014

WHILE acknowledging the many global challenges now vying for America's attention, both Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice sought to reaffirm the US' continued engagement in Asia.

Speaking at the launch of the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in South-east Asia Studies at Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr Shanmugam made the case that the US cannot afford to let itself get distracted from its goals in Asia.

Noting the raft of changes currently taking place in the region, he said: "There are many crises, Middle East and other regions, which demand America's bandwidth. But there is no region in the world where American influence is as likely to be challenged as seriously as in East Asia."

He added that how the United States and China structure their relationship would be of crucial importance to the world.

As he had during previous visits to the US, Mr Shanmugam reiterated the need for Washington to complete the seemingly stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. "The rebalance cannot only be military, it has to be economic as well," he said, citing the TPP as a critical part of the US economic strategy in Asia. "In East Asia, including South-east Asia, economics is strategy. It is crucial for the US to secure the TPP. That is strategically important and an anchor of the US economic strategy in Asia."

Failure to do so, he warned, would mean the US being put at a tremendous disadvantage in the region, especially with progress being made on a host of other trade agreements that do not involve the Western power.

With the US mid-term elections about a month away and a host of urgent crises elsewhere, there has been a sense among Washington pundits in recent months that Asia policy has been shoved to the end of the queue.

During her speech at the launch on Monday, Dr Rice stressed that it was not the case.

"Even in the press of world events, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, heightened tensions with Russia over Ukraine and an Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa, the US commitment to Asia and to South-east Asia in particular is a top priority. The US is a Pacific nation, our shared future is as certain as our shared past," she said, citing a string of high-level visits by US leaders, including President Barack Obama, to Asia.

The Lee Kuan Yew Chair was set up to raise awareness of South-east Asian issues in the US capital. It is one of only a handful of academic positions in Washington think-tanks that focuses on the region. The academic position is also the first time anything in the US has been named after the former prime minister.

Dr Joseph Liow, associate dean of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, will be the first person to take up the position that is meant to be rotated every two years among academics from South-east Asia.

He said he will seek to make sure that South-east Asia has a voice in discussions in the US capital and noted that the position has a big name to live up to.

"The chair is named after a truly remarkable man. While much has been said about Lee Kuan Yew's role in building the Singapore today, as a student of international politics, I have been far more interested in his contributions in matters of foreign affairs. In this area, I have found his reading and articulation of international developments from a South- east Asian perspective and its implication not only for Singapore, but (also for) the region and the world, truly unmatched."

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