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America’s “Rebalance”… Towards Southeast Asia

While an upcoming visit underscores Washington’s commitment to the region, consistency is the key.

Last week, Barack Obama was re-elected to serve a second term as president of the United States. President Obama’s first trip abroad since his re-election will be to Southeast Asia from November 17-20 to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS), the regional grouping of 18 Asian-Pacific nations, including the United States, held in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Mr. Obama’s visit will make history as the first time a U.S. president has ever visited the country.

Underscoring the president’s attendance at the EAS will be his visits to Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar). President Obama’s trip to Thailand will commemorate 180 years of uninterrupted diplomatic ties, making it the oldest bilateral relationship the U.S. has with any Asian nation. Conversely, until recently, U.S. relations with Burma had been one of the prickliest of any country on earth. Despite criticism in human rights circles, President Obama’s trip to Yangon is meant to recognize and encourage the recent democratic reforms that have been taking place in that country after 50 years of harsh military rule.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. needed to make a “strategic pivot” (later rephrased as a “rebalancing”) in its foreign policy, where over the next decade the dynamic will be to downsize the U.S. presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and to invest more and pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific, particularly Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia’s cumulative economic, political, and demographic weight is growing. With a combined population of more than half a billion people and a GDP of $2 trillion, these countries have embarked on a drive through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) toward effective regional integration and connectivity by 2015. In the coming decades, ASEAN nations and other Asian nations – particularly China – will change the shape of the global economy. Asia will not only be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, it will also be the world’s largest consumer of them. Further illustrating its increasing wealth, Asia will soon be home to the majority of the world’s middle class.

Asia’s economic dynamism will not occur in a strategic vacuum. America’s “rebalancing” in the region comes at a time when China’s power and influence is rising. While some Asian nations – most notably the Philippines and Japan – have expressed serious concern about China’s territorial ambitions in the South China and East China seas, all Asian nations believe that stable U.S.-China relations are fundamental to prosperity and security in the region. The challenge will be finding a strategic and economic balance that will ensure the U.S. maintains its political, economic, and security interests, without China feeling it is being contained. One thing is for  certain: no Asian nation wants to feel forced to choose between Washington and Beijing.

The U.S. is also trying to “rebalance” at a time when it is facing enormous domestic challenges – the most immediate being tackling the ever-rising national debt. By Jan. 2, 2013, President Obama and the Congress must come up with a budget agreement in order to prevent going over the “fiscal cliff” – a combination of sharp tax increases and steep across-the-board tax cuts that could bring about another recession. Such cuts would undoubtedly have an adverse impact on the United States’ ability to carry out its foreign and national security policies in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere.

Despite increased attention to Asia in President Obama’s first term, it fell short on trade and economic matters. In a second Obama administration, one hopes to see more attention paid to economic ties with Asia. Now that most economic sanctions toward Burma have been lifted, the U.S. will hopefully look to develop and expand its trade and economic ties with ASEAN, which would assist in the region’s economic integration efforts. The U.S. is also looking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an 11-nation regional trade pact that does not include China. But passing free trade agreements in the U.S. Congress is always a daunting challenge, even in the best of times.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said: “Asia is critical to America’s future and an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future.” As President Obama prepares for his historic Southeast Asia trip, he is showing the world that Southeast Asia – and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly – is important to the United States’ strategic calculus and that American commitment to the region should remain consistent, not episodic.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation. This piece originally appeared in the Asia Foundation’s In Asia Blog.