How to Get Southeast Asia Right
Image Credit: White House

How to Get Southeast Asia Right


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.

November 18, 2012 at 12:04

ASEAN must stand firm and united.  china and the US each have their own interests to pursue.
I am a filipino. We may have been one of the US's staunchest allies (granting we were a former US commonwealth and hence considered US citizens before our independence)… but things are changing.
Filipinos have a very long "collective" patience and we are very forgiving as a people. But the US has used up most of the goodwill that they have with the filipinos. They came to the philippines as allies against spain but stabbed us in the back and conquered us after we kicked the spanish out…. our senate iscurrently reviewing the visiting forces with america leading to possible termination of the visiting forces treaty…
Obama's pivot to asia might prove to be stillborn. America should realize that they are increasingly becoming diplomatically isolated and economically weak. 
many westerners and even the chinese forget that we are not little brown americans. we wont allow the US and china to make us into their pawns and trade us off to each other like a trophy. ASEAN should speak with one voice. After all ASEAN was created under the principle of non intervention – that ASEAN should not be divided into spheres of influence.

February 18, 2011 at 01:46

Chinese never lacks stratigists, Amercia too. Will they go to war or confrontation? To some extent, maybe. But I think only status quo or suspicious cooperation can serve interests of both their countries and themselves best. That’s the very reason why Sino-US relations can survive last three decades despite of ever-changing environments.

February 18, 2011 at 01:36

Do you really believe that China and southease Asia will fall into the pit dug by American? Don’t you guys forget the historical lesson that all the descending empire actually started to fall after full expansion? In my opinion, Obama administration will be the turning point for the historical transition for the descendence of American empire.

February 17, 2011 at 21:57


China is in the dark ages and their soft diplomacy is a farce

America, get it right? With Clinton and Obama you must be kidding
We had Bush and Rice and that too was a moral hazard and joke.

Do not believe all you see or read
China and America never reveal to the South East Asian countries the
true strategies. Why? because they know the Asean nations pimp the information
to the highest whore. Truth be told the Asean nations never trust China
this is why Japan and Korea do well in the region

Jim B.
February 9, 2011 at 08:22

Woa ha ha! Since when did you think the US is contesting with China is an arms race?… Hahahaha…

It is China that is feverishly trying to catch up with the U.S… China is so far behind that it has to beg, steal or borrow any kind of technology in order to shorten the US lead. In naval power alone, the US Navy has been patrolling the seven seas since World War II. What has the Chinese Navy done lately besides a few nuclear submarines that deemed too risky to go out on too many patrols?

I guess somebody has had too much Kool-aid lately.

February 6, 2011 at 00:20

Kopassus crimes were not just in the 1990s, they go back further than that and continue to this day. See for a partial list.

U.S. training of Indonesia’s Kopassus will set back efforts to achieve accountability for past and recent human rights violations and will not discourage future crimes. Restrictions on U.S. military assistance to Indonesia provide leverage to support democracy and human rights in Indonesia. Working with Kopassus, with its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine those fighting for justice and accountability in Indonesia and East Timor. They should be reinstated.

Praveen Kumar
February 5, 2011 at 02:31

The article smacks of a bias. The tone assumes that the presence of the US, for its economic gains would necessarily benefit South east asian nations. Why can we not be happy with china doing 15 years from now, what the US has been doing for the last 5o years..and the various strategies of containment are phrased as “should”, should it not be a non-partisan “would”. I guess paid media has penetrated “The diplomat” as well.

John Chan
February 4, 2011 at 11:36

The article based on the idea that the US can entice the ASEAN nations into an anti-China trade alliance with money via the TPP, and security alliance by supplying arms. The US has no wherewithal to meet any of these offerings. TPP needs the US to increase their trade deficit, which will take more jobs away from the US citizens. Neither the US executive or legislative branches have the foolhardiness for that action. Unless they are willing to supply weapons for free, the security alliance is only good on paper, otherwise ASEAN nations would wonder why they should spend money to buy weapons against an enemy they can’t beat.

The authors have a sever case of wishful thinking that results from living in Cuckoo Land too long. They want the ASEAN nations pay the US to contain China on behalf of the US’ hegemony. This concept totally ignore the fact that China is the ASEAN nations biggest trading partner and their economic prosperity relies on China.

China knows the root of all the troubles in Asia is the US. As long as China cannot neutralize US influence, its hands are tied. Once the US is neutralized, I just wonder which ASEN nation is willing to be the first sucker to bear the brunt of China’s resulting wrath.

The whole idea is flawed. The concept of containment will just incite China to build a more lethal arsenal. The US will probably follow in the USSR’s foot steps if they continue their arms race with China. They will bankrupt themselves trying to outpace China in arms development. How many nations in Asia can conduct arm race head on with China? The ASEAN nations don’t have the industrial and technological base to mount a meaningful challenge. It is quite possible the authors still live and see the world in the period just after WWII.

February 4, 2011 at 10:28

“I have made up my mind. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

“Much friendly Obama to the negotiation table….”…haha! You think these conutries’ leaders are kindergarten kids? They may be born at night, but not last night.

February 4, 2011 at 06:51

What else is there to say? This is nothing but containment. Sure the US has every right to do that for as long as it has the capability to do so since the only world, the real world, we live in is a dog-eat-dog world anyway. What bothers me tremendously is the sugar coating of the authors’ arguments. By so doing, the authors treat their readers with intellectual contempt.

February 3, 2011 at 11:51

“…At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s jaw-dropping lecture to Asian ministers — and the U.S. secretary of state — that other countries were obstreperous to contest China’s unilateral claim to international waters and island chains in the South China Sea still rankles with leaders who were present. Particularly galling, according to the foreign minister of one major power at the meeting, was Foreign Minister Yang’s reminder that Southeast Asian states were “small countries” who depended on trade with China for their prosperity, while China was a “large country.” There was therefore little chance of equality in their relations, Yang suggested. China’s neighbors simply would have to take that asymmetry — and, he added pointedly, their economic dependence on the China market — into account before “internationalizing” their dispute with Beijing over competing maritime claims…”

The CCP with such direct, clear, loud and public humiliating words stated an undeniable desire to become an unfriendly hegemonic power in the ASEAN. Is unsurprising that what chinese “diplomats” call with contempt “small countries”, welcome a much friendly Obama to the negotiation table. Let two great powers compete for influence is a natural reaction for counterbalance hegemonic powers. Now ASEAN can bid for more aid and better trade agreements from both sides.

February 3, 2011 at 10:36

I have to agree that the real argument in this is containment of China hidden behind talk of cooperating with other Asian states. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, but we should admit what our real goals are.

February 2, 2011 at 23:30

Despite this author’s protestations, this policy is quite simply containment. There is no need to disguise it with fluff or congeniality. The US doesn’t want China to gain more influence in Southeast Asia stop. The US wants the countries of Southeast Asia to rely upon itself, or India, for their security stop. The US wants to prevent China from gaining any more territory or influence full stop.

The author’s programme would deliberately exclude China from whatever security arraignment the Asia-Pacific region would become, as well as deliberately and unambiguously rejecting China’s arguments for more space (which at least deserves consideration). Under such a cunningly disguised system of 21st century containment, how could China feel anything but cornered and suppressed?

By encouraging the development of Southeast Asia’s military appetites, the US is willfully ignoring unpleasant truths. China has been and will become a major center of power and influence in Asia, and overemphasizing the importance of nations like Vietnam and Indonesia encourages them to entertain ideas of hegemony themselves. Vietnam, for instance, once considered itself the “Prussia” of Indochina and invaded its neighbors. Indonesia is a nation characterized by Javanese colonization of the other islands, sometimes with great violence as seen in the situation in Timor, and in the eastern island of New Guinea.

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