One of the central components of the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific has been the increasing emphasis on Southeast Asia as a sub-region – what some officials call the “rebalance within the rebalance.” While there is broad regional support in Southeast Asia for the administration’s rebalance, there are lingering concerns about its implementation and sustainability.
What, then, can the administration do in 2015 to boost the rebalance to Southeast Asia before people begin to turn their heads to focus on the 2016 U.S. presidential elections? While this could very easily have been a much longer piece, I’ve tried to discipline myself by limiting the list to just five recommendations. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Starting with the most obvious, the Obama administration needs to conclude the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which currently involves four Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – but could potentially include others in the future as well. If history is any guide, passing TPP will require sustained, high-profile attention by the president as well as passage of Trade Promotion Authority by Congress. A completed agreement would no doubt be a huge victory for the United States in the ongoing economic game in the Asia-Pacific, which has a competitive edge to it even if it ideally should not. But more broadly, a finished TPP would be a tangible demonstration that the rebalance is not just military-centric (a regional concern), and a clear signal of Washington’s capacity and willingness to shape the future rules of the road for the region.
2. Adjust to China’s evolving regional strategy: China’s strategy for Southeast Asia – which I argued was outlined pretty clearly as early as October 2013 – essentially advocates strengthening economic engagement to bind ASEAN states closer to it and reducing strategic mistrust to stave off threats to China’s regional leadership. Some of the arrangements subsequently proposed are exclusive and marginalize the United States, while others are calibrated to limit Southeast Asian responses and American involvement. Yet the United States has often been on the back foot in responding to Beijing’s seemingly magnanimous displays of its soft power, such its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, or crude demonstrations of its hard power in the South China Sea. A goal of US policy for 2015, as respected China expert Robert Sutter has argued, should not just be to react to moves by Beijing, but to proactively put forth initiatives of its own that build on U.S. strengths and exploit Chinese weaknesses (and there are many).
3. Achieve balance in Myanmar policy: In 2015, the ongoing tug of war between those pushing for greater engagement in Myanmar and those cautioning against moving too quickly amid stalled reform efforts is likely to intensify as the country moves towards elections at the end of the year. In an ideal scenario, the Obama administration and the Republican Congress would successfully balance the need to confront the government in Naypyidaw on legitimate democracy and human rights concerns with the desire to deepen an important relationship. But striking that balance is easier to write about than to actually implement. If democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to participate in the election, or if there is significant backsliding on key indicators of progress, such as constitutional reform, the peace process, or the Rohingya issue, we could see growing fissures in U.S. policy between the executive and legislative branches and a potentially deteriorating U.S.-Myanmar relationship.
4. Boost comprehensive partnerships: We talk a lot about U.S. alliances. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, the Obama administration has worked tirelessly to craft looser “comprehensive partnerships” with three critical Southeast Asian states – Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. These alignments are significant, but they will require nurturing in 2015 and beyond as they are still in their nascent stages relative to older U.S. alliances. These countries will all be busy in 2015: Malaysia is chairing ASEAN and holding a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council; Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will be implementing his ambitious reform agenda; and Vietnam will be gearing up for its party congress in 2016. That makes it all the more important for Washington to prioritize boosting these partnerships from the get go in 2015.
5. Work on responding to the Islamic State threat: As I’ve highlighted before, ASEAN states – principally the two Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also others like the Philippines and Singapore – are increasingly worried about the Islamic State’s threat to the region, whether it is directly through planned attacks or indirectly via Southeast Asian recruits fighting in the Middle East who then return home and spread extremist ideology. Of course, it is important not to overstate this threat, and in some of these countries excessive U.S. involvement in responding to it can sometimes be unproductive. But there is still plenty of room for both quiet and public cooperation between the United States and relevant Southeast Asian states where it is required. The challenge for Washington will be to ensure that security concerns are addressed without further undermining democracy and human rights in ASEAN countries – a challenge that the United States itself has faced domestically.
Of course, a list like this is not meant to be exhaustive. What would you have put down as your five priorities?