US Administration Fails in Southeast Asia, Scholar Says

The administration of US President Barack Obama has been “badly misguided” in its relations with Southeast Asia, according to a working paper written for the Washington, DC-based Council on Foreign Relations by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the council, ignoring the chance to force authoritarian states toward democracy.

The attempt to rebuild ties is part of a broader strategy that has famously become known as the “pivot” to Asia and includes shifting economic, diplomatic, and military resources to the region from other parts of the world.

President Obama has paid particular attention to Malaysia to the distress of democracy advocates, inviting the controversial Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to golf with him recently in Hawaii despite the fact that in recent months the country has used its sedition act to crack down on opponents and stirred religious tensions against ethnic minorities. And, despite the harsh military crackdown in Thailand, the US has not backed away from Thailand’s co-hosting of Cobra Gold, the Asia-Pacific’s vast military exercise involving 16,000 military personnel from seven countries.

“This focus on mainland Southeast Asia has distracted attention from the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore—that are of greater value strategically and economically,” he writes. “ Indonesia, in particular, is a thriving democracy and an increasingly important stabilizing force in regional and international affairs.”

Instead, the US’s increased ties have facilitated political regression in the region, he writes, “empowering brutal militaries, condoning authoritarian regimes, and alienating young Southeast Asian democrats.”

Thailand in particular has regressed more than any other country in Southeast Asia over the past 20 years. Reform has also stalled in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. This political regression has had and will have strategic downsides for the US as well, alienating young Southeast Asians, the region’s future leaders, who can be expected to become increasingly anti-American.”

Through the remainder of the Obama presidency, “the US should refocus its Southeast Asia policy in two ways,” Kurlantzik continues. “Prioritize the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia and restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region. In particular, the US should slow and, in some cases, halt growing military-to-military ties with the countries of mainland Southeast Asia such as Myanmar.”

Washington also should refocus its aid on democracy promotion in Southeast Asia and work to upgrade its relations with Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam by working to sign a treaty alliance with Singapore and expanding diplomatic, economic, and military ties with the four nations.

Southeast Asia was at the center of US foreign policy during much of the Cold War. However, the end of the wars in Indochina and the normalization of relations with former enemies like Vietnam in the early 1990s made the region a lower strategic priority.

In 2009 the incoming Obama administration vowed to counter the Bush administration’s perceived lack of interest in Southeast Asia and in East Asia more broadly, Kurlantzik writes, with Obama and his team commissioning multiple reviews of US policy toward East Asia, ultimately launching the famously named pivot, which had multiple components including the promise of enhanced diplomatic relations with a wide range of Asian nations, a renewal of US attempts to forge a regional East Asian trade pact, and a recommitment that senior US officials would appear at important Asian regional gatherings. Ultimately, the trade component of the pivot would become a push for adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Southeast Asia was seen as critical in part because the Obama administration believed the US had far more room to recover prestige and strategic influence in Southeast Asia than in Northeast Asia. Led by a president who had spent some of his childhood living in Indonesia and State Department officials with significant experience in Southeast Asia, the Obama administration believed that the US could make major inroads in relations with Southeast Asia.

There was clearly room for US relations with mainland Southeast Asia to improve. While the US-Vietnam relationship had blossomed under Bush, it was still hindered by congressional opposition to closer ties, concerns in Washington over Hanoi’s human rights record, lingering distrust from the Vietnam War era, and Hanoi’s desire to balance between ties with Washington and with Beijing.

This failure to engage has cost dearly. Several of the poorer nations in mainland Southeast Asia, like Myanmar and Vietnam, also are populous and have untapped natural resources and large potential markets. Myanmar has one of the 10 largest untapped deposits of offshore oil and gas, as well as significant quantities of copper, tin, zinc, virgin timber, precious gemstones, and other resources. Fewer than 2 percent of people in Myanmar in 2009 owned mobile phones, and the penetration rates of other consumer products in the country remain similarly low.

“Before Obama took office, many large US companies had for over a decade been lobbying the US government to remove sanctions on Myanmar, precisely because they believed the country was a promising emerging market and had significant natural resources, Kurlantzick writes..

In addition to its position at the center of growing intra-Asian trade routes, mainland Southeast Asia also seemed, to some administration officials and Southeast Asia observers, to be a region where the US and China were now competing directly for influence.

Many members of Congress agreed with the Obama administration that China was becoming the dominant influence in mainland Southeast Asia, and that this development somehow threatened US interests in Asia. Sen. James Webb was probably the most vocal congressional advocate of improving relations with mainland Southeast Asia to counter China’s influence.

The Obama administration also hoped that renewed relations with mainland Southeast Asia would deliver a broader foreign policy victory. If rapprochement with mainland Southeast Asia produced closer diplomatic ties and an environment conducive to US investment, it might demonstrate to the US public and Congress that interaction rather than isolation should be at the center of US foreign policy.

“Obama had come into office in 2009 touting an ‘extend a hand’ idea of US foreign policy toward the US’ long-time antagonists. Rather than demonizing them, the US would extend a hand to those leaders “who cling to power through corruption and deceit” if they “are willing to unclench” their fists in return, Obama said in his first inaugural address.

Indeed, several administration officials suggested to congresspeople and to think tank specialists that if the “extend a hand” approach worked with former Southeast Asian pariahs like Myanmar, perhaps similar types of US interaction would work with longtime antagonists like Cuba, Iran, or Russia.

Finally, as several former administration officials noted, once the Obama administration had committed to building ties with mainland Southeast Asia, it would look bad politically in the US for the White House to halt the process or to slow it down. This was particularly true with Myanmar, where the administration would expend considerable political capital convincing congresspeople and many human rights organizations that rapprochement was the correct policy.