Next week, at a summit in California, President Obama will meet the ten leaders of countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the most important regional group in Asia. The event, the first-ever US-ASEAN summit on American soil, is being touted by the White House as a sign of the importance of Southeast Asia. After all, the Obama administration has made relations with Southeast Asia a centerpiece of “the pivot,” or “rebalance to Asia,” a national security strategy that entails shifting American military, economic, and diplomatic resources to the Pacific Rim.
There are indeed important reasons for holding the U.S.-ASEAN summit. Tensions are rising between several Southeast Asian nations and China, in part because of Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions in Asian seas. China’s recent decision to move an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam could precipitate another showdown in the South China Sea, as happened in 2014. Two years ago, tensions over China’s decision to move the same rig into disputed waters led to deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Not only Vietnam but also other Southeast Asian nations are increasingly frightened of China, led now by the most autocratic Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines are all desperately trying to upgrade their navies and coast guards. Two decades after essentially tossing U.S. forces out of bases in the Philippines, Manila has welcomed back American troops, as part of a new military cooperation deal.
Even some of the region’s poorest nations, which are heavily dependent on Chinese aid and trade, are concerned. In Laos, where China is the biggest aid donor and largest trading partner, the ruling communist party last month elected a new leadership reportedly devoid of any pro-China politicians, a drastic shift from Laos’ last government. In Myanmar, where China is probably the biggest trading partner and most important donor, the Myanmar military’s concern about becoming a kind of Chinese satellite was a major reason why the country’s junta ceded power to civilians in the early 2010s.
In addition, trade ties between the United States and Southeast Asia are increasingly important to the U.S. economy. Together, the ten ASEAN nations comprise the fourth-largest trading partner of the United States. Some evidence also suggests that the new ASEAN Economic Community, a nascent regional free trade plan, is helping Southeast Asian nations weather an increasingly rocky global economic environment.
But President Obama’s summit with Southeast Asian leaders comes at an awkward time in one very important respect. Since the pivot was launched, Southeast Asia’s political systems have, on the whole, regressed badly. For more on my analysis of Southeast Asia’s democratic regression, read my new Project Syndicate piece.