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Obama’s B Grade on ASEAN

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New Leaders Forum

Obama’s B Grade on ASEAN

Barack Obama has made a welcome effort to re-engage with Asia. But his ASEAN policy needs some work.

Compared with the previous US government, the Obama administration has shown tremendous interest in re-engaging with Asia. Barack Obama has focused much of his energy on repairing, upgrading and elevating ties with Asian powers, while consistently demonstrating his country’s commitment to multilateralism and regional integration in Asia and the Pacific. In fact, Japan, China, and South Korea were among his first official foreign trips, signifying renewed US interest in this key region.

This should come as no surprise, given how these countries represent some of the world’s largest and (in some cases) most dynamic economies.

The Bush administration’s unilateralist tendencies and obsession with the ‘War on Terror,’ in contrast, alienated many of the United States’ Asian allies, while the excessive pre-occupation with the Middle East allowed China, a potential strategic competitor, to rapidly expand its political and economic influence across the region.

Indeed, it’s China’s rapid rise that has perhaps done most in Washington to highlight Asia’s strategic value. But the Obama administration has also acknowledged the growing significance of Southeast Asian countries. To his credit, Obama has been pro-active in his engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), something that has been accomplished in part through the US signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; invigorating the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting; supporting ASEAN’s constructive engagement with Burma; the opening of a permanent US mission in ASEAN; conducting ministerial meetings with Lower Mekong Countries; supporting a ‘regional’ solution to the South China Sea conflict, and strongly engaging Indonesia while integrating it into the world’s top inter-governmental decision making body, the G-20.

Still, there are lingering concerns over the United States’ policy toward ASEAN. For a start, there are a number of factors that have circumscribed the Obama administrations’ engagement with the region: (1) The United States’ tendency to prioritize ties with Northeast Asian powers; (2) Washington’s continuing pre-occupation with Middle Eastern affairs, especially in light of Iran’s nuclear programme and the so-called Arab Spring; (3) Washington’s inability to articulate a clear and precise strategy vis-à-vis ASEAN; (4) Distracting economic troubles at home; and (5) ASEAN’s institutional deficits. In addition, there’s the inevitable competition/friction with China, especially given Beijing’s growing regional influence and more assertive posturing in the South China Sea.

Desperate to create jobs at home, slash the United States’ trade deficit, and broaden export markets for US products, the Obama administration has tirelessly sought to improve its ties with major economies in Northeast Asia. Strategically, the United States is also eager to re-energize the Japan-US alliance, improve ties with China and provide a more convincing and effective framework to manage simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

On the other hand, Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear capability, along with growing troubles in Afghanistan, are absorbing a huge chunk of the United States’ political and financial resources. Meanwhile, Australia is also competing for US attention, given the former’s rise as a credible partner and a diligent middle power in the region. These factors explain why Indonesia – arguably ASEAN’s most important country – wasn’t among Obama’s first foreign destinations on assuming office, a fact that underscored the US tendency to relegate ASEAN to a secondary position within its broader Asian policy.

But it’s China that is the largest regional factor. Over the last two decades, China’s diplomatic savvy, economic prowess, and growing political sophistication have allowed it to deepen its strategic depth in Southeast Asia. Given the United States’ weak economic position, the Obama administration’s ability to compete with China’s ‘soft power’ has gradually diminished. All this has meant that not only is the United States having problems ‘charming’ states such as Cambodia and Laos, but it’s also facing difficulties in retaining the loyalty of some long-time allies such as Thailand and the Philippines. The truth is that ASEAN has transformed into something of a strategic battleground for Beijing and Washington. And, while the United States’ growing bilateral ties with Indonesia are a welcome development, they might come at the expense of Washington’s multilateral engagement with ASEAN.

In additional to all this, ASEAN’s own institutional handicaps could complicate relations with Washington. With the diverse and often competing interests of member countries, ASEAN lacks concrete conflict coping mechanisms, which prevent it from effectively managing, let alone resolving, growing tensions in the South China Sea. The Obama administrations’ expressed commitment to the ‘freedom of navigation’ and a rule-based regional solution to the territorial conflict in South China Sea is commendable. Yet, the United States’ ability to play a constructive role is limited by the fact that ASEAN doesn’t provide a reliable political-legal framework on this issue.

Meanwhile, given the strategic centrality of Sino-American relations, both in bilateral and global terms, the United States can’t afford to develop an aggressive posture over the South China Sea, despite Vietnam and the Philippines likely welcoming more decisive US engagement.

Ultimately it’s clear that although the Obama administration has made significant progress on Asia as a whole, there are some key gaps that need addressing if the United States is to secure comprehensive, long-term engagement with Asia. It’s clear that on this, as with so much else, Obama will need a second term to succeed.

Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications.