Southeast Asia is important to the United States from a military perspective for many reasons: its strategic location, its importance as a counterweight to China, and its large Muslim population, which makes the region an important front in the global fight against terrorism. As Esther Pan explains in this CFR Background Q&A, relations between the U.S. military and those of Southeast Asian nations have warmed, in some cases considerably, since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Sheldon Simon of Arizona State University details the relationship between the U.S. military and several Southeast Asian countries in the journal Comparative Connections, saying the United States should strengthen its ties to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). The Center for Contemporary Conflict and the Monterey Naval Institute finds a number of Southeast Asian nations torn between the benefits of cooperating with the United States and the desire to protect their national autonomy. As the institute points out, terror investigations, for example in Indonesia, often hit a little too close to home. But the desire for good regional ties with Ameica is on the upswing. John Gershman writes in Foreign Affairs about the sudden blossoming of U.S. interest in the region after 9/11.
China's military and economic rise has also created a strong competitor for U.S. interests in the region. CFR fellow Elizabeth Economy examines the implications of China's rise in Southeast Asia on Japan and the United States, Robert Sutter of Georgetown University examines China's efforts to reach out to Southeast Asian countries, and the Congressional Research Service says China's increasingly close ties to Southeast Asia could displace U.S. ties to the region. The Heritage Foundation says the United States must engage much more actively in Southeast Asia to prevent China from supplanting it as the region's dominant force.
The largest military in the region belongs to Indonesia, whose army has a checkered history. The United States only recently re-established military relations with Indonesia; the two countries now share a wide range of cooperation programs (Asia Times), including training and donations of medical and other equipment. Frida Berrigan of the World Policy Institute at the New School offers a history of U.S. involvement with the Indonesian military.