Minding the Gaps: The Bush Administration and U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations

By Limaye, Satu P. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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Minding the Gaps: The Bush Administration and U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations

Limaye, Satu P., Contemporary Southeast Asia

Introduction: The Implications of Initial Bush Administration Policies for U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations

Bold foreign and security policy pronouncements and actions by the incoming U.S. administration, the subsequent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the start of Operation Enduring Freedom against Afghanistan-based Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements in early October, foiled terrorist plots and, unfortunately, successful attacks (e.g., Ball) in several Southeast Asian countries in 2002, and then Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, contributed to a period of intense and complex U.S.-Southeast Asia interactions. Early on, the Bush administration's foreign and security policies, the situation within Southeast Asia, and the state of bilateral relations, had mixed implications for future U.S.-Southeast Asia relations. On the one hand, the new administration's stated intention to devote more attention to Asia and buttress ties with "allies and friends" was largely welcomed in the region. But other Bush administration intentions and decisions (such as characterizing China as a "competitor, a potential regional rival", (2) a commitment to develop and deploy missile defences, and unilateral rejection of the Kyoto Protocol) created "gaps" between the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries. Unplanned incidents such as a Chinese fighter aircraft bumping, then grounding, a U.S. EP3 plane and detention of the crew further complicated U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia--partly by detracting attention from it.

Meanwhile, domestic political crises in key Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines made getting U.S. relations with those countries on track difficult. In other cases, such as Vietnam, the U.S. was handling specific bilateral irritants in the process of normalizing relations. Of course not all was negative. As the Bush administration took over from the Clinton administration, U.S. military and security cooperation with much of the region was improving. Key relationships, such as with Singapore, were solidifying. And other countries, such as Malaysia, were indicating that they sought improved ties. However, the net early outlook for U.S.-Southeast Asia relations under the Bush administration was one of "gaps" between U.S. priorities and policies and Southeast Asian ones.

Initial Bush administration foreign and security policy intentions and decisions had mixed implications for Southeast Asia. However, the net effect of these policies and Southeast Asia's reactions to them created friction in U.S.-Southeast Asian relations.

In dealing with the world, "[a]ssuring allies and friends of the United States' steadiness of purpose and its capacity to fulfill its security commitments" (3) was the primary emphasis of the incoming Bush administration. Within this context, the Bush administration signalled its intention to revive attention on a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, (4) Thailand and the Philippines, and sought to restore limited military links with Indonesia. Moreover, the concept of an "East Asian littoral", as articulated in the September 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), suggested a heightened engagement with Southeast Asia as part of greater attention to Asia. (5) 0ther than to distinguish itself from the preceding administration, the emphasis on "allies and friends" was designed to reinforce ideological components of U.S. foreign policy (i.e., democracies, open markets), American primacy in the region based on politico-military relationships with welcoming partners rather than engagement through weak multilateral organizations, a revised regional threat assessment (focusing primarily on the rise of China), and a distinction between those countries the U.S. considers like-minded, cooperative and non-threatening, and those it does not.

Southeast Asian countries, somewhat sensitive about sustaining Washington's attentions, welcomed prospective opportunities offered by the new Bush administration's emphasis on themselves as "allies and friends" and engagement with Asia.

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