In a speech at Arizona State University earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter laid out a kind of relaunch of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia---a plan for moving the rebalance forward over the final years of the president’s second term. Carter hit many key points that the administration hopes to emphasize: the importance of passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership both for the region’s economic future and for America’s own strategic interests; the growth in maritime partnerships with longtime allies like Australia and Japan; the increase in training programs for partner militaries in the Asia-Pacific region.
But, other than relatively brief references to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, the defense secretary largely avoided talking about Southeast Asia, which originally was a focus of the rebalance. He almost completely skipped mainland Southeast Asia, other than Vietnam. He did not mention the budding U.S. strategic and economic relationship with Myanmar, supposedly one of the administration’s great foreign policy triumphs. He also did not mention other authoritarian mainland Southeast Asian nations, like Cambodia, where the White House has pursued a policy of building closer strategic ties. And Carter did not make reference to Thailand, a treaty ally, at all either.
If Carter’s speech highlights a shift in the rebalance away from focusing on mainland Southeast Asia---other than Vietnam---it may signal a wise policy change. As I wrote in a recent working paper, pursuing rapprochement with many nations in mainland Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Myanmar, and even junta-ruled Thailand, has delivered minimal strategic benefit for the United States while exacerbating repressive human rights climates in these countries. Only the relationship with Vietnam has delivered significant strategic benefits to the United States in the past six years---benefits worth the damage to the United States’ image by partnering with the authoritarian government in Hanoi.
Although the White House, during Obama’s first term, argued that rapprochement with Southeast Asian nations like Myanmar would foster improvements in democratic governance in the region, there has been little evidence to support this claim. Thailand suffered a military coup in May 2014, and the Thai junta recently suggested that it could stay in power indefinitely, a contrast to previous junta promises that it would hand power to an elected government in early 2016. Myanmar, though headed for elections later this year, has moved backward, according to most rights monitoring organizations, from the reforms of 2011 and 2012. Vietnam’s human rights situation “remained critical” in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch’s most recent annual report on the state of human rights in the world. “The [Vietnamese] security forces increased various forms of harassment and intimidation of critics.” Malaysia has put its opposition leader in jail, filed charges against his daughter, also an MP, for making a speech in Parliament, and reportedly used the Sedition Law to arrest activists and other opposition politicians.
Perhaps, at this point, the Obama administration is realizing that the rebalance, or pivot, is not delivering enough strategic gains in mainland Southeast Asia, which is why Carter’s speech ignored Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. If the speech suggests that the White House will focus instead on Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore---as well, of course, as focusing on Australia, and partners in South Asia and Northeast Asia---then the revamped rebalance might be more effective in Southeast Asia.