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The National Interest: The South China Sea and the Lessons of History

Author: Walter Lohman
October 4, 2013


"Southeast Asia needs America. Call it an insurance policy or balancing or hedging, or what you will, ASEAN does not want to be left alone with China. And no combination of other outside players is as reassuring as the United States' presence."

President Obama's cancelation of his trip to participate in next week's ASEAN and APEC Summits next week has the internet abuzz with discussion of what it may mean for America's role in the Western Pacific. Initial reactions, however, are not necessarily good indicators. President Obama cancelled trips to Indonesia and Australia three times in 2009-2010. The Bush Administration's attention to personal diplomacy in Southeast Asia was likewise spotty.

Yet, within the region, at least, all was forgiven with the advent of America's "Asia Pivot."

The substance of the pivot is one thing. It is under-resourced on the military side and the economic component – the Transpacific Partnership FTA – is complicated by a Democrat caucus in the House that is overwhelmingly and demonstrably protectionist. This is beginning to sink in a bit in the region. The appeal of the pivot narrative, however, has proven remarkably resilient.

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