The Obama administration is mounting a high-profile effort to bring senior officials to Singapore for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum beginning next week, but struggling with how much substance they will need to deliver in addition to the pageantry.
During the Bush administration, the countries of East and Southeast Asia sought American attention but often felt the Bush focus on the war on terror crowded their issues off the White House's priority list.
The Obama administration has been working furiously to reverse that impression and the APEC forum will represent the largest display of those efforts yet.
The president, four cabinet-rank officials, dozens of appointee level bureaucrats, and maybe even a few Congressmen will attend the multi-faceted session. But already, administration officials are warning that the event might not produce any actual tangible progress on issues prized by those countries, most importantly on the issue of trade.
"APEC is a non- binding, voluntary organization that operates on consensus," the State Department's Korea desk chief Kurt Tong said Tuesday, "There are real benefits to that, in the ability then to set the agenda within APEC... On the other hand, it doesn't often result in legally binding commitments in and of themselves; but rather, decisions to then take back the outcomes of APEC and implement them on a sustained and voluntary basis."
Tong laid out a number of broad themes for this year's conference: Economic recovery, "resisting protectionism," regional economic integration, as well as balanced and sustainable growth. But his message was clear: the increased U.S. attention and presence at the conference is what the administration wants to focus on and wants credit for.
"That's certainly the perception which we wish to convey," Tong said, "It's really quite a concerted and very enthusiastic embrace of the APEC meetings and APEC as an institution by the United States, as evidenced by that participation," he said.
Top Obama officials who will be attending different part of the conference, in addition to the Obama himself, are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
Although the Bush administration's delegation to last year's APEC Forum in Peru was large, in addition to the president, Condoleezza Rice was the only cabinet official to attend.
But while Southeast Asia experts give the Obama team credit for improving the optics of U.S. involvement in the region, they warn that the countries of the region will be satisfied with that for only so long before wanting to see the new American government put its money where its mouth is.
"The Obama administration gets very high marks on form and being there, which counts for a lot in Asia," said Ernie Bower, the newly minted senior advisor and Southeast Asia program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "But the wheel is about to turn, and eventually you've got to have substance behind this."
The two main things regional actors are waiting for Obama to start moving on are the idea of a free trade area for the Asia-Pacific region and commitment to finalize the stalled Doha round of World Trade Organization talks.
In both cases, the administration is debating its strategy internally now, but faces problems selling the ideas in Congress and a lack of political capital to spend on trade in the face of an already crowded and ambitious domestic agenda.
"The message to Asia is: We're here, the substance is coming, but please hold on, we have things to do at home first," Bower said.
There is at least a feeling that the conference itself could shake out some movement from the Obama administration on trade. Singapore, the host of the conference, is particularly dependent on trade and therefore is seen as needing some concession from the U.S. on that front.
One area where progress could be demonstrated would be some U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP). The TPP is seen as a "coalition of the willing" on trade cooperation and a lighter, a less restrictive way to advance cooperative trade that could eventually evolve into an FTA.
The other main event in Singapore for U.S. foreign policy watchers will be the side meeting between all ten countries in the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will for the first time include senior Burmese and American leaders in the same room.
ASEAN has been pushing for an annual meeting with the U.S., as they already have with China, but the U.S. hasn't yet agreed to that. But a big part of the Obama administration's engagement strategy in the region is a recognition that China's charm offensive has made great strides over the last decade.
"The Bush administration was not able to put the needed investment in Southeast Asia, which provided a historic opportunity for China to really step up its game," said Bower, "If the Americans want to play, we're going to have make a significant commitment to ASEAN."
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