The United States dramatically ramped up its Asia-Pacific strategy over the
past week with a high-profile tour through the region by President Barack Obama
and US participation in several summits. Touted as an effort to expand trade
and shore up the stagnant American economy, much of the actual diplomatic
attention was given to security issues. This was especially true in Southeast
Asia, where America's reengagement strategy seems geared to step up competition
Washington's emphasis on Asia arguably started in the first days of Obama's
administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to take her first trip
abroad to Asia, a break from the past where Europe usually took precedence.
This was followed by US participation in regional forums including the
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum - or ARF, the ASEAN
Post-Ministerial Conference, and, most recently, the East Asia Summit (EAS).
The US also appointed an ambassador to ASEAN and under Obama signed the Treaty
of Amity and Cooperation with the grouping, a key move towards strengthening
the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations relationship.
The US has also increased its participation in regional security initiatives.
Besides the annual Cobra Gold military exercises held in Thailand, the US has
stepped up cooperation and participation in exercises with the militaries of
Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. After a decade-long ban,
the US resumed military contact with Indonesian Kopassus special forces in
2010. The US has also begun non-combat related military exercises with Vietnam.
During Obama's recent visit to Australia, the two sides announced plans to
eventually post a 2,500-strong US Marine task force at the northern Australian
city of Darwin.
These moves underscore Obama's reengagement policy towards Asia, and Southeast
Asia in particular. An article by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
published earlier this month in Foreign Policy magazine clearly set out
America's intention to renew its economic, political and security commitments
to the region. Using the term "forward-deployed diplomacy", Clinton presented a
proactive policy characterized by strengthening bilateral security alliances,
establishing a broad-based military presence, engaging with multilateral
institutions, increasing trade and investment, strengthening relationships with
emerging regional powers, including China, and promoting human rights and
The article was followed up by action with visits to several Southeast Asian
nations by Obama and Clinton as part of a week of Asia-focused events,
including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hawaii on November
12-13 and ending at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia on November 18-19.
Although promoted as reasserting America's diplomatic presence and forging new
economic partnerships, security issues took precedence at many of the bilateral
and multilateral meetings.
Obama summed up his intentions during his visit to Australia on November 16 -
"With my visit to the region I am making it clear that the United States is
stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region." His statement
was made following the announcement of an expansion of America's military
presence in the region through the US Marine task force to be rotated through
Australian military bases. While the 2,500 soldiers are a modest deployment,
they mark the first long-term expansion of America's military presence in Asia
since the Vietnam War.
The deployment has clear implications for Southeast Asia. The marine presence
will allow the US to project its presence into the region without actually
taking the possibly provocative - and likely unpopular - step of basing troops
in the region. America gave up its bases in Thailand in the mid-1970s and the
Philippines in the early 1990s, although the US does have use of naval
facilities in Singapore.
From Australia, American troops will have easy access to the region to
participate in training exercises, assist in humanitarian efforts, and provide
a presence to help maintain the regional security architecture. It also puts
troops within easy reach of the South China Sea, providing a measure of
deterrence and moral support to Southeast Asian countries with claims to the
area. In addition to the marines in Australia, the US also has plans to deploy
its new littoral combat ships to Singapore.
In her article, Clinton wrote of renewing and strengthening alliances with
Thailand and the Philippines. She visited both countries during her recent
swing through the region. Clinton put symbolic weight behind her written
intentions of increasing ship visits to the Philippines and training Filipino
counterterrorism forces when she reaffirmed the strong military relationship
between the US and the Philippines on the deck of an American warship in Manila
The symbolism was certainly not lost on Filipinos, who are at odds with China
over what Manila considers its sovereign portion of the South China Sea. In her
speech on board the warship, Clinton referred to the West Philippines Sea,
Manila's preferred term for the South China Sea. Recent joint US-Philippines
military maneuvers, meanwhile, have shifted from primarily land programs to
ones more focused on naval and amphibious warfare.
Putting a less aggressive face on the proposed expanded American military
presence in the region, Clinton noted in her article that it would provide
"vital" advantages, including better positioned US support for humanitarian
operations as well as providing a "robust bulwark against threats or efforts to
undermine regional peace and stability".
While America's military will certainly be able to assist with future
humanitarian emergencies, as it did during the 2004 tsunami disaster and was
available for following the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, and training
exercises with Southeast Asian militaries have been held for some time, there
is considerable speculation that the US's recent security promises and shored
up military commitments are part of a larger strategy aimed at China.
At the heart of that speculation is the South China Sea. Calling freedom of
navigation and stability a "vital" interest, Clinton wrote in her article that
American diplomacy has contributed to sustained multilateral efforts among
rival claimants that has ensured disputes are settled peacefully and in
accordance with established tenets of international law. While in the
Philippines - and at the same time that Obama was announcing the stationing of
US troops in Australia - Clinton signed a declaration with her Philippine
counterpart calling for multilateral talks to resolve maritime issues.
The other claimants to the maritime area, who are increasingly questioning
China's motives in both the South China Sea and elsewhere, have characterized
recent Chinese actions in the potentially oil and gas rich area as aggressive.
Beijing's mantra of commitment to regional peace and stability through
nonaggression run counter to a lack of transparency on its military program and
actions such as the recent harassment of other countries' research vessels by
Chinese naval boats.
Indeed, America's more forward military presence in the region has been couched
as a response supported by regional states to China's perceived as aggressive
attitude in the maritime area. China has maintained that it wants to discuss
the contested territorial claims only bilaterally and has rejected
"internationalization" of the issue in forums such as the ARF and EAS.
Myanmar also seems to have decided it may be better to balance its relationship
with China with better relations with the US. Hostility towards growing Chinese
economic and political influence in the country came to a head last month with
the suspension of a controversial China-backed hydropower dam project in the
At the same time, several high-level meetings between Myanmar officials and US
diplomats, and an impending visit by Clinton to the country next month, have
left many Myanmar watchers with the impression that a new, more amicable
relationship between Washington and Naypyidaw is in the offing.
Many ASEAN states value the ability of the US to play a counterbalancing role
to China, but do not want to be put in a position of being forced to choose
between Beijing and Washington. Part of America's appeal has been the Obama
administration's backing of ASEAN's centrality in the developing regional
security architecture. ASEAN countries hope that Washington's weight will help
to encourage China to play by the rules and norms it helps to foster in
international forums and not only those dictated by Beijing.
Beijing's reaction to Washington's more assertive stance has been generally
muted. A series of stern warnings were issued throughout the week in response
to Obama's statements, including through mouthpiece media, but they were
largely a matter of course.
Washington was accused of seeking to raise military tensions in the region with
its announcement of basing troops in Australia. State media agency Xinhua
commented last week that "America feels China poses a growing threat to its
hegemony. Therefore, the aim of America's strategic move east is in fact to pin
down and contain China and counterbalance China's development."
These and other editorial warnings were not as strong as expected for such an
assertive move by Washington into an area where China has taken an increasingly
keen interest. Indeed, Beijing seems to have largely been caught off guard by
the scale and assertiveness of Washington's new line, though its response may
have been tempered by a current preoccupation with leadership succession
issues. Clearly, China would like to avoid any major diplomatic disputes until
these issues are resolved.
Chinese officials and analysts must also measure their responses to avoid
overreacting to messages that are meant more for the American domestic audience
in the lead up to next year's presidential elections than aimed directly at
Beijing. Obama has been accused by rival Republican party candidates of being
too soft on China, a popular refrain on both sides of the political divide in
the run-up to US elections.
Beijing may also have been somewhat taken aback by the substantial support in
the region for Washington. According to a briefing by an American official, 16
of the 18 leaders present at the EAS spoke out strongly against China's current
posture in the region. The lesson Beijing may have taken away from the meeting
is that a hard-line stance on the South China Sea will likely only result in
increased reliance by other claimants on the US, a scenario Beijing clearly
wants to avoid.
In recognition of China's unease at American moves that could be construed as
encirclement, Obama pledged on November 17 to seek greater cooperation with
Beijing. Two days later, he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in an unscheduled
meeting after the EAS meeting in Bali, apparently at China's request. Wen
reportedly chastised Obama for raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS,
saying the issue should be resolved directly "through friendly consultation and
It remains to be seen whether the US can live up to its rhetoric and plans for
an increased security commitment. In light of the US's recent financial
problems, economic downturn, and consequent budget cuts at the Pentagon,
regional leaders are concerned that Washington may not be able to maintain its
stated commitment to the region.
Still smarting from a seeming neglect of the region in favor of wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan during the presidency of George W Bush, ASEAN leaders need
assurances backed up by concrete actions that the US security presence is
genuinely here to stay. Should Washington falter on those commitments, the US
risks losing legitimacy in the region and the diplomatic confidence the Obama
administration has been able to win back through its vows of reengagement.