If Obama’s first foreign visit when elected in 2008 was Germany then the choice of South East Asia also poses few surprises for his second term.
A brief 6 hour visit marked the first Presidential visit to Burma in an attempt to seal the reforms of the last year by Burma’s military government including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi now an MP.
And a trip to Thailand reiterated the importance of South East Asia for trade and investment: the latter growing at 11% almost double the pace of China. While the first ever Presidential visit to Cambodia is against the backdrop of encouraging greater democracy and human rights as part of the ASEAN Summit. Perhaps all the more apt given the police crackdown on the Poetic Justice arts exhibition, on the Khmer Rouge and Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia, by activist Theng Seary.
Human rights in Asia
And the signing of an ASEAN human rights declaration is designed to encompass the range of Asian governance from the dictatorships of Burma to modern democracies such as Singapore and absolute monarchies such as Brunei where voting is still outlawed.
For Kent the portents are clear, with Britain opening its first embassy in Laos to pose as a regional trade partner to rival Franc in South East Asia – and Kent’s first trade delegation from Vietnam. Like Indonesia not just an Asian country with not just one of the world’s largest population, but many of them under 25 and perfect targets for Western-style consumerism albeit within the sustainable limits of the Climate Change Era.
With UK trade with Asia almost non-existent there is work to do in ensuring both Kent and Britain’s place at the trade table. The province of Victoria in Australia for example recently sent a trade delegation of over 80 staff to China. And Hong Kong is seriously considered a replacement for the City of London within a decade – and certainly China’s economy will surpass the USA to be the world’s largest in real terms within this decade.
Kent and Asia
While the blistering pace of urbanisation in China – the greatest movement of people in history – is now 50% and forecast to reach 70% with whole cities being built in one fell swoop is in contrast tot the overbuild of Kent and almost 30,000 empty houses. Over 122 Chinese cities with 1M people compared to 30 such cities in Europe and just 10 in USA will be dwarfing Kent’s town planning in Medway and the like.
If the opportunities are great for Britain and Kent then so are the downsides. Burmese and Cambodian democratic and trade reforms are by no means guaranteed. Total petrol stations still suffer from war crime designation from Burma – and in East Kent, as with Veolia, face ethical sanctions alongside calls for corporate manslaughter for New Zealand’s Infratil, and KCC and TDC with Environment Agency and Southern Water removal of monitors since 2006 and millions of pounds of fines for cancer and pollution.
Laos and Vietnam are still 20th century Communist economies in many ways and China only in the last decade shrugging of the centralised State to some extent. Although recent Vietnamese and Lao elections mark a break with the past: the end of Vietnam War-era politicians and generals being in power for the first time in 40 years.
And as portents of globalised trade, Coca-Cola has recently opened a bottling plant in Burma – now only Cuba and North Korea are without the real thing as Coke replaces Communism or at least US trade sanctions.
Similarly Cambodia’s fledgling stock exchange opened last year with the South Korean exchange – the most advanced internet nation on earth. And the only cloud on the horizon for increased trade is minor conflicts with Thailand over the UNESCO Preah Vihar temple on the border.
Future Kent and Asia
Increased peace and prosperity and autonomy across Asia will speed up the US troops pivot to Australia and away from South Korea and Okinawa, along with the US Navy redeployed from the Gulf and Europe to Asia. Any conflicts - except major problems with Taiwan or North Korea - are likely to be naval border issues eg the Spratlys and Senkaku this year or Kurile Islands last year.
Islamic separatist conflicts are likely to be prevalent in Southern Thailand, Philippines – with US troops deployed already- and Indonesia could easily restage the Bali Bomb of 2002. While the ongoing ethnic conflict in many of Burma’s provinces has recently spread to the Moslem Rohingya of Western Burma and India. And even China is faced with similar problems with the Uighur Moslem conflicts.
All the main South East Asian nations are geographically larger than Britain, with both larger and younger populations so are crucial trading partners with Japan – and Europe - in Lost Decade decline and China’s economy is hidden behind State enterprises and non-tradable currency. Certainly the steps forward in Climate Change, tourism, FOI and corruption improvements leave Kent looking as the Old Man of Europe ridden with the British Diseases of secrecy and pollution, or as a backwater, rather than poised between London and Brussels or the UK's only multinational Euro-zone.
The recent APEC trade summit in Vladivostock marks the changing of the guard for both USA and China with Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta heading for retirement and a new Chinese ruling committee emerging from the upheavals of the Bo Xilai disputes.
With the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War next year, and the UK according to The Economist falling to 27th place as the Best Place to Live in 2030, then South East Asian trade just may be more important to Kent and Britain’s economy than China or Europe or the US in the future.