“The Missing Common Thread”, by Malcolm Cook

Commentary 2016/19, 27 May 2016 

President Obama’s latest visit to East Asia has featured two symbolic highlights; the full lifting of U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam, and the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the Hiroshima peace park. Media coverage of the arms embargo have focussed primarily on US-China relations, undoubtedly aided by Obama’s unbelievable claim that the lifting has nothing to do with China. Coverage of the visit to Hiroshima has focussed on Obama’s stated and unrecognised desire for a world without nuclear weapons.


Yet there is common thread that ties these two very different symbolic acts together. This same thread also ties them to Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, and, arguably, the nuclear deal with Iran. All four cases, three of them in Obama’s final year as president, are attempts by Washington to make painful histories of conflict and non-recognition just that, history. For Vietnam, the lifting of the arms embargo is a major U.S. step to move the U.S. and U.S.-Vietnam relations beyond the Vietnam War. The visit to Hiroshima to move the U.S. and U.S.-Japan relations beyond World War II.  The visit to Havana to help move beyond the Cold War and Bay of Pigs. The Iran deal to help move beyond the 1979 Iranian revolution and U.S. hostage crisis.

The fact that the thread connects U.S. relations with former enemies in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia shows how long and strong it is. Adding to its thickness and tautness is the fact that in each case it is the U.S. government redefining its relationships with these countries. This thread is all about the U.S.

Southeast Asia and beyond is suffering from a worsening strategic myopia where all U.S. strategic actions in the region are being viewed as predominantly or even solely driven by U.S.-China relations. This is neither accurate nor helpful as this missing common thread suggests.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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