Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia in the US Rebalance: Perceptions from a Divided Region

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia in the US Rebalance: Perceptions from a Divided Region

Article excerpt

President Obama's "no-show" at the October 2013 East Asia Summit (EAS) and US-ASEAN Summit in Bali--compounded by cancelled bilateral visits to Malaysia and the Philippines either side--has added to doubts already being expressed volubly within the region about the durability and commitment of the US "pivot" or "rebalance" to the wider region, particularly given Washington's claims to be pursuing a sub-regional focus on Southeast Asia. There is, however, nothing especially new about alternating swings in regional attitudes towards the United States. As Alice Ba has argued, regional perceptions have tended to cast US policy towards Southeast Asia in binary terms, alternating between the extremes of over-militarization and "systemic neglect". (1) The first and second George W. Bush administrations typified this curve, initially sparking concerns that the United States was intent on opening up a "second front" in the so-called "war on terror" in Southeast Asia, yielding to disappointment at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's non-attendance at successive meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). (2)

The rebalance (3) to Asia--launched two years into Barack Obama's first term--initially re-awakened the over-militarization critique of US policy, given its up-front focus on US force realignment and rising tensions in the South China Sea. Within the US military global commands structure, the Western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean fall within the Pacific Command (PACOM) and Pacific Fleet's area of responsibility. This automatically subsumes Southeast Asia in--a wider strategic context. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's intervention at the July 2010 ARF in Hanoi, and her subsequent November 2011 Foreign Policy article--still the closest document to an official doctrine for the pivot--clearly signalled an intensification of US interest in the South China Sea. (4) Attention in Southeast Asia was further garnered by Washington's apparent interest in a more "redistributive" footprint for the US military forward-deployed presence in the Western Pacific, given its top-heavy dispositions in Japan, South Korea and Guam. According to Don Emmerson, "the pivot's association with security unbalanced the policy itself", overshadowing the pivot's economic rationale and creating the impression that the "goal of tapping into the material dynamism of emerging Asia seemed to be more of an afterthought" (5). Since 2012 there has been a conscious re-calibration to the pivot/ rebalance, widening the base of US engagement efforts to include diplomatic and economic legs to match the already extended defence component.

Although the pivot concept, as originally used by US officials, "suggested the transfer of resources and strategic attention from the Middle East and Europe to Asia", the military substance--at least in terms of additional US military deployments--in Southeast Asia has been somewhat underwhelming. (6) Nonetheless the region has maintained a consistently high profile within the overall geographical focus on Asia, borne out in the high number of senior administration officials visiting the region, beginning with Hillary Clinton's February 2009 visit to Jakarta in the early phase of the Obama presidency, which was judged to be "the public relations highlight of her first trip to Asia as Secretary of State". (7) Clinton went on to visit all ten ASEAN capitals, while "a greater emphasis on Southeast Asia" was further reflected in the thirteen visits to Asia made by Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, as well as senior officials and military officers including the National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (8) Notwithstanding the cancellation of two previous presidential visits to Southeast Asia before October 2013, the overall engagement effort has been relatively consistent, given the considerable presidential "face time" invested in annual attendance at both the EAS and APEC leaders meeting. …

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