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A Strategic Pivot in U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations in 2012

January 4, 2012

By John J. Brandon

For much of the past two decades, many Southeast Asians have expressed frustration that U.S. policy treated their region with benign neglect or indifference, and that the United States’ attention was episodic rather than consistent.

Long Bien Bridge in Vietnam.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. needed to pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia. In the past, many Southeast Asians have expressed frustration that U.S. policy has neglected the region. Photo by Karl Grobl.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. needed to make “a strategic pivot” in its foreign policy, where over the next decade the dynamic will be to downsize the United States’ presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and to invest more and pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia. In the past year, Washington accelerated its relations with Southeast Asia in a number of symbolic and important ways. The U.S. was the first non-ASEAN country to establish a dedicated mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, named and confirmed a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma (also known as Myanmar), and expanded and deepened its bilateral relations with most Southeast Asian nations, particularly Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Cambodia. Moreover, the Obama administration has made clear that it wants to be involved in regional architecture where ASEAN serves as the “fulcrum,” to borrow Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s word. Hence, the importance of U.S. participation for the first time in the East Asia Summit (EAS) as a full-fledged member this past November in Indonesia. By engaging ASEAN nations, both multilaterally and bilaterally, the U.S. is dispelling the widespread belief in the region that it does not have a sustained commitment to Southeast Asia and its importance in helping to address both regional and global issues.

The United States is trying to make this “strategic pivot” at a time when it is facing enormous domestic challenges – a rising national debt, high unemployment, a housing crisis, deteriorating infrastructure, and an inadequate education system at the primary and secondary levels, among others. With 2012 being an election year, these issues will resonate more strongly with Americans than foreign policy. The 2012 EAS meeting will be held in Cambodia. If President Obama attends, he will be the first U.S. president to ever visit Cambodia. His attendance could serve as a big boost to U.S.-Cambodian relations, which have improved over the past couple of years. However, President Obama will likely only attend if the next EAS is held after the November 6 U.S. elections. The question will then be whether President Obama will go to Cambodia having been reelected to a second term or as a lame duck.

In addition, the reform process in Burma has been gaining momentum – from the creation of a national human rights commission and the easing of press censorship to welcoming back exiles and the suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project. Moreover, the government in Naypyidaw has allowed the National League for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition party, to re-register, which would allow its members to run for political office, including Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize who has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house detention. Aung San Suu Kyi has made it clear that she intends to run in the country’s parliamentary by-elections that are likely to be held in late spring. Barring any massive fraud, she will undoubtedly win. However, the U.S. Congress is extremely reluctant to lift economic and trade sanctions because of the insufficient number of political prisoners released, continued fighting between Burma’s military and various ethnic groups (particularly the Kachin); opium and methamphetamine production and concerns about the military’s involvement; and a genuine reservation by the Congress on whether recent reforms can or will be sustained.

While the United States has shown a very proactive engagement with the region on the political and security fronts, it has fallen somewhat short on trade and economic matters. Although U.S.-ASEAN trade was $182 billion in 2011, the U.S. market share continues to decline as China has become the region’s economic behemoth. The United States remains the only major country not to have a free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN. One reason is sanctions with Burma. But the United States’ ability to establish FTAs generally has become increasingly difficult as evidenced by the four years it took to pass a FTA with South Korea, a key U.S. ally. Given ASEAN’s diverse levels of political and economic development, any U.S. FTA with ASEAN will be several years in the making. For the moment, the U.S. wants to focus on shaping and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an administration initiative that includes eight nations, only four of them from Southeast Asia: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

In light of the United States’ economic difficulties, Southeast Asian nations are concerned that Washington may not be able to maintain its stated commitment to the region. Secretary Clinton has said: “Asia is critical to America’s future and an engaged Asia is vital to Asia’s future.”  Southeast Asia is a critical element to the United States’ strategic calculus, and America needs to engage and invest more wisely and constructively in this important part of the world.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of the Regional Cooperation Program in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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