After more than half a century of relative neglect, Maritime Southeast Asia—the South China Sea and the six countries that border it—has become a major focus for US strategists and policymakers.
Since the end of World War II, Washington’s approach to this region was largely a by-product of other overarching international objectives. During the Cold War, the United States saw maritime Southeast Asia as a bulwark against communist expansion. Then, with the end of the Cold War and the onset of the Asian financial crisis, the region became ground zero in a US-led effort to save the global economy. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region—and their successful bombings of Western targets in Bali and Jakarta—transformed the area into a battleground in the war on terror.
But the US approach to the region is now undergoing yet another change.
Maritime Southeast Asia matters. Situated at the strategic crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the region plays a vital role in securing global trade flows. The region contains a US ally (the Philippines), a long-time US friend (Singapore), and an up-and-coming regional heavyweight (Indonesia) who in recent years have improved diplomatic and security ties with the United States.
Economically, the region has come a long way since the dark days of the 1997 financial crisis. Singapore has joined New York and London as a top-tier financial centre; Indonesia has become one of the world’s leading emerging markets and is a member of the G-20; and Vietnam has achieved growth rates rivalling those of China. The region’s 465 million people produce a gross domestic product of nearly 1.5 trillion dollars and together constitute a vital market for US exports. Maritime Southeast Asia also hosts considerable US foreign direct investment (FDI). Indeed, its stock of US FDI is more than twice China’s and almost six times that of India.
In addition, the region lies on the front line of China’s rise. Over the past two decades, a booming China has economically permeated the region, surpassing the United States, Japan, and Europe to become its largest trading partner. At the same time, maritime Southeast Asia’s defining body of water, the South China Sea, has become a regional flashpoint. Beijing asserts sovereignty over most of the South China Sea while a number of littoral states advance more modest territorial claims.
In recent years, China has employed blustering language and military exercises to intimidate other claimants and overlaying these local tensions in the South China Sea is an emerging maritime rivalry between the United States and China. In contravention of established international law, for example, Beijing has harassed US ships navigating areas of the South China Sea that fall within its exclusive economic zone. Whether China’s ‘peaceful rise’ amounts to more than mere rhetoric will be tested in maritime Southeast Asia early—and often.
Enter the Obama Administration
Having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, US President Barack Obama came to office with a particularly strong interest in the region. He declared that the days of US withdrawal from the region had ended, and billed himself as ‘America’s first Pacific president.’ In addition, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural foreign trip included maritime Southeast Asia, signalling a renewed US commitment to the region.
This initial emphasis on maritime Southeast Asia translated into a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening US ties with the region.