Introduction: America's Bilateral Relations with Southeast Asia-Constraints and Promise

Article excerpt

This special issue of Contemporary Southeast Asia examining United States bilateral relations with Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, and specifically the mutual efforts at "rapprochement", "re-engagement" or "revitalization", is informed by several considerations.

First, the Obama administration took office with a declared commitment to improve relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an organization and moved with alacrity to implement a number of policy decisions to that end. Second, and in parallel, the administration highlighted opportunities for broader and deeper bilateral relations with specific ASEAN member countries. In fact, the Obama administration's policy of improving bilateral relations across Southeast Asia and with ASEAN as an institution is integrated and necessary--not least because of ASEAN's own decision to expand its membership in the 1990s. Four of the countries considered in this special issue constitute the "new", expanded membership of ASEAN and are countries with whom the opportunities for improved relations with the US are greatest. Together, this focus on Southeast Asia is an important element of the current administration's overall focus on US relations with the Asia Pacific--a focus which represents one of the most significant periods of US regional activism in decades.

Of course the Obama administration's initiatives in the region, including efforts to expand bilateral ties with several Southeast Asian countriere n--ccurring in a vacuum. With the exception of Cambodia, the US has not broken diplomatic ties with any of the countries considered in this special issue. Moreover, some of the groundwork for current dramatic developments in US bilateral relations with particular countries covered herein go back many years; as in the case of this year's 15th anniversary of US-Vietnam normalization. Perhaps the Obama administration's announced engagement with Myanmar constitutes the "freshest" (if the most problematic) overture among these bilateral relationships--though even with Myanmar there were some exploratory efforts towards re-engagement before the Obama administration took office.

The set of US-Southeast Asia bilateral relations examined in this special issue are clearly selective. They do not include bilateral relations with long-standing allies such as Thailand and the Philippines, or with close partner Singapore. This is not to suggest that these bilateral relationships are not important, for clearly they are. However, for the purpose of this issue, we have focused on a select number of countries for the following reasons. First, as noted, four of the countries covered in this set of analyses are the newest members of ASEAN and ones where bilateral relations have for some decades been least developed and problematic. Second, efforts by the US to enhance its ties with ASEAN as an institution have at least partly been shaped by its relationships with these countries. In the case of Myanmar, for example, US relations with this country have long complicated US ties to ASEAN. Indonesia, other than being a newly prominent focus of US foreign policy generally, has also attracted renewed attention in terms of determining the future direction and resilience of ASEAN. (1) The budding bilateral US-Indonesia relationship will overlap with Indonesia becoming chair of ASEAN in 2011--providing an opportunity to coordinate ties bilaterally and with the region at a particularly critical juncture in evolving US-Southeast Asia relations. In the case of Laos, its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2004 partially underlay stepped-up US engagement with Vientiane. Similarly, key elements of US-Southeast Asia activities (e.g., the decision to join the East Asia Summit or EAS) and issue important pronouncements about the South China Sea came during the chairmanship of ASEAN by Vietnam.

A third consideration underlying this overall collection of articles is the broader theme of engagement in the Obama administration's foreign policys, a--a theme which spurred lively debate in the election campaign leading up to the election of Barack Obama as President, and which has since continued. …