Warnings, one-upmanship and hearts and minds tactics: gloves off in Southeast Asia, writes Asia Sentinel’s Murray Hunter

Just one week after winning a second term Barak Obama is about to make a trip to Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia to bolster support for the US in the region.

Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama. Pic: AP.

During his first stop in Thailand Obama will use his best personal asset, charm, to try to persuade the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet to allow the US the use of airbases. With increased “foreign elements” infiltrating into the southern provinces of Thailand, the US is also still very keen to have some presence there to prevent the region becoming a sanctuary and waypoint for further terrorist activity in other areas of the region.

Obama will then travel onto Burma to meet President Thein Sein to try and stem the strong Chinese influence with the government. Burma looks set to be a frontline in the battle between Chinese and US companies for a share the expected growth in business and infrastructure development within the country over the next few years.

Normally such a trip to countries like Burma where there is still a long way to go in human rights and economic reforms would not be made by a US president. However, long-standing US government principles are being tossed aside in the interests of increasing US influence in the region, reminiscent of the Cold War days of the 1960s. Obama has put the new Chinese administration on notice that his coming term will be one of competition in winning the ‘hearts and minds’ (read handouts) of the nations surrounding China.

However just a few days before Obama is due to arrive in Bangkok and attend the US-ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Cambodia, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit Australia for an annual meeting of ministers (AUSMIN). The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Dr. Campbell has told the Australian press the US administration is far from happy about Australian defense spending budget cuts and that Australia must pull its weight and not become dependent on the US.

Campbell highlighted US irritation with Australia, saying “I’ve signaled that it is important. We count on Australia in so many ways. This is one of the topics that we’re going to be engaged closely on.”

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