OPINION: Many believe that the United States’ re-engagement policy in the region has been to minimise Chinese influence
It is undeniable that Southeast Asia represents a number of strategic interests for the United States. Bilateral trade between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the US has been impressive. According to the Asean Secretariat, in 2011 the total trade between Asean and the US was $198 billion – a growth of 6.5% from $186 billion in 2010 – accounting for 8.3% of total Asean trade in 2011. On top of this, the American foreign direct investment (FDI) flow amounted to $6.1 billion in 2011, compared with $5.7 billion in 2009.
The US has also forged political and security relations with Asean at both regional and bilateral levels. It is a member of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and was admitted into the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2010. Obviously, the US has shifted its policy toward Southeast Asia and Asean. During the Bush administration, the region was largely ignored by Washington. Today, with Obama becoming a regular visitor to the region, the US has recognised the need to improve ties with its Southeast Asian counterparts.
However, observers argue that it is China, not Southeast Asia, which has emerged as a determining factor behind the shift in US policy toward this region. Many believe that the US re-engagement policy has been to minimise Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. This coincides with the rise of China, which sees a more assertive policy on the part of Beijing in winning over its Southeast Asian neighbours. But China has also struggled to create a new image as a rising peace-loving power. The conflict in the South China Sea serves to remind Southeast Asia of the real and present threat from Beijing.
In the event that Obama embarks on another Southeast Asian tour in November and attends the Asean Business and Investment Summit, it is imperative to revisit the US strategic vision vis-à-vis Southeast Asia in the wake of a rising China.
On a bilateral basis, the US has in recent years elevated its relations with key allies in Southeast Asia to new heights. Military exercises between the US and Thailand under the Cobra Gold have long served as a pillar of security cooperation in the region. It now extends to cover other non-military allies of the US, including Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei. These military ties have been actively promoted alongside economic engagement between the two sides. The US has maintained its position as
a top investor in many Asean economies.
At the regional level, the US has seemed to compete fiercely with China in entrenching its influence. So far, the US has been involved in a myriad of initiatives within the Asean framework. The newly established Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) will provide another platform for the US to closely monitor Chinese military ambition. As a signatory member of Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the US can now express its legitimate concerns over China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.