Do U.S. Overtures to ASEAN Matter?

English: A screen shot from this White House v...

President Obama attends a working lunch with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations around the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“US-ASEAN Relations: Advances Made But Challenges Remain”
Prashanth Parameswaran
East-West Center
December 13, 2012

As a part of his “grand pivot tour” last fall, Barack Obama engaged with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an effort to rejuvenate ties that had gone fallow for nearly a decade and a half.

While progress was made, as the author of this paper points out, the bigger questions are the continuing relevance of both the U.S. and ASEAN to the futures of the nations in the region. Regional trade ties are supplanting both Europe and the United States in economic importance. The U.S. realistically does not have a lot of diplomatic bandwidth for the region. And in the face of a series of more relevant groupings, like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP,) ASEAN is starting to look dated, much as SEATO became in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam.

All of this complicates U.S. foreign policy, but it plays into the hands of a China looking to define Asia outside the grasp of the United States, Russia, and Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, then, the region is starting to wonder what it needs America for in the first place. Perhaps it is time the U.S. began reassessing our own interests in the region.

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Does Thailand Want the US to Pivot?

Thailand guard

Thailand guard (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“After Obama’s Visit: The US-Thailand Alliance and China”
Sasiwan Chingchit

East-West Center
December 4, 2012

The underlying assumption of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy to shift the focus of the U.S. security establishment away from Southwest Asia and Europe to Southeast Asia is that the locals are going to be happy with the idea. A read of Sasiwan Chingchit’s essay, though, makes you wonder.

The author suggests that despite a long friendship with the U.S. that peaked in the early 1970s, Thai attentions and affections have since shifted north, to China. Little wonder: since China backed the Thai economy during the dark days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the money has continued to flow from China and into the Thai economy in the form of loans, direct investment, and plume of tourists that grows by the year. That one Thai in five is ethnically Chinese probably doesn’t hurt. The message is clear: don’t think you’re going to swoop in here and turn us against our new benefactors to the north.

Chingchit makes a fair point, but the elephant in the room should be obvious to any Thai realist: what happens if the price of Chinese friendship gets a little too high?

Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in finding itself caught between two giants. On the one hand, relations with the rising China carry the promise of commercial and economic benefit. On the other, the U.S. presence in Asia stands as a guarantor that limits China’s ambitions to the commercial sphere. Having the U.S. and China at loggerheads on their behalf suits the smaller nations of Asia as the competition between two eligible bachelors suits the coquette.

What happens, then, when the U.S., tired of a low diplomatic return on its security investment, allows the pivot to become a dead letter and leaves Southeast Asia to manage its own fate? The last time the region was without a capable protector it fell under the shadow of Japan’s East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It does not take a surfeit of imagination to see something altogether similar happening again.

Free eBook of the Day: U.S. Global Defense Posture, 1783–2011

U.S. Global Defense Posture, 1783–2011
Stacie L. Pettyjohn

RAND
2012
144 pp.

In a refreshingly thin volume, Stacie Pettyjohn offers us an overview of how the U.S. approach to its national defense evolved from a minimalism that could barely defend the national frontiers to global interventionism.

It is a thoughtful, largely apolitical study that points us to a future where the U.S. treads more lightly overseas, and as such will offer food for thought for all of us who debate U.S. foreign policy.

China and Obama’s Second Term

Big Bets and Black Swans: Foreign Policy Challenges for President Obama’s Second Term
Brookings Institution

January, 2013
94 pp.

On the eve of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, The Brookings Institution has compiled a briefing book from a collection of memoranda to the president outlining where and how they feel POTUS should spend his foreign policy time over the next four years. Significantly, five of the fifteen foreign policy challenges the experts identify are related to China.

Most notably, Kenneth Lieberthal suggests in “Bringing Beijing Back In” that it is time to shift away from “The Pivot” and put all effort into engaging Xi Jinping, whom he characterizes as “more open and politically agile than was Hu Jintao.” If nothing else, Lieberthal offers an agenda that will put the initiative in the bilateral relationship back into U.S. hands.

The briefing book is worth a read, if for no other reason than to use it as a baseline against which to evaluate the Administration’s progress in the region. You may argue with the tactics or the approaches, but the Brookings team have done a solid job at identifying the issues. Interestingly – but I would imaging by pure coincidence – The Economist this week makes recommendations not too far removed from those of the Brookings team.