Wenchi Yu is an Asia Society fellow, a Project 2049 Institute fellow, and a former U.S. Department of State official. She is the managing partner of the Banyan Advisory Group LLC, which focuses on social investment in Asia. Follow her on Twitter: @WenchiY.
President Barack Obama just returned from Asia after an eight-day, four-country visit to the region. International media coverage carefully examined the Obama administration’s “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia through trade, military, and other security issues and the reaction of China to the president’s visit. But given the United States’ complex diplomatic relations with the region, it is the president’s people-to-people diplomacy in Southeast Asia that is most likely to result in long-term goodwill from the region.
Despite growing trade relations between the United States and Southeast Asia, diplomatic relations are historically weak. A critical part of the Obama administration’s Asia policy is increasing engagement in Southeast Asia—a region with diverse ethnicities, languages, and cultures, as well as emerging economies, moderate Muslim-majority countries, and a political bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with increasing influence in regional matters. While maintaining strong relationships with allies like Japan, Korea, and Australia remains a priority, Washington has the most to gain by investing time and resources in its partners in Southeast Asia.
In this vein, a core U.S. strategy has been and should be people-to-people diplomacy using non-security issues such as innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, gender equality, youth, and development as tools for engagement. In Southeast Asia, people-to-people diplomacy has manifested itself in strategic initiatives such as the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, the annual U.S.-ASEAN Business Summit, the Lower Mekong Initiative, and entrepreneurship and women-focused programs. The U.S. State Department underwent organizational changes to embed a senior (deputy assistant secretary) position in the regional bureau to carry out public diplomacy programs. Embassies and ambassadors are encouraged to use social media—popular in the region—to reach out to new and young audiences. For example, America’s popular ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, uses Twitter extensively to communicate with her nearly fifty-thousand followers. In Jakarta, the @america cultural center uses technology to engage young Indonesians with American culture and values. Most of these people-to-people efforts are welcomed by this region’s governments and societies because they speak directly to citizens, bring new opportunities, and bridge differences. To the United States, investing in and influencing open-minded, innovative, and moderate emerging leaders is an important long-term strategy. The goal is simple—win the hearts and minds of the people and future leaders.
This strategy is working on the ground and American diplomats are doing it more. During Obama’s visit to Malaysia—the first American presidential visit in forty-eight years—he held a town hall event with five hundred Malaysian university students. He also held a business signing ceremony for major U.S.-Malaysia commercial deals and spoke with young entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia to discuss challenges facing their societies. When young social entrepreneurs, with U.S. support, are given the opportunity to present their own solutions to community problems, they are much more likely to develop a positive impression of the United States. Although these efforts do not replace important security and military cooperation, Obama’s message was clear—people-to-people engagement is an important part of U.S. policy in the region.
Still, winning the hearts and minds of the people is not just about unquestioning support. As one young Malaysian woman remarked, "America used to stand for freedom of speech and democracy, pushing for more civil society space." But Obama’s historic visit to Kuala Lumpur—seen as a boost for Malaysia’s highly unpopular prime minister Najib Razak—was rather confusing to her. "Why would America stand by a leader who has so many issues at home? Is America compromising?" United States should not be afraid of speaking out when things are wrong—a core value of the United States.
Those who question whether Obama is serious about his Asia policy need to look beyond traditional political and security issues. As former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has written, "engagement must go far beyond government-to-government interactions." Though not as controversial or provocative as the issues favored by the media, sustained, strategic investments in Southeast Asia’s business, society, and people are much more likely to yield long-term goodwill toward the United States. To increase American influence in Asia, a winning strategy must begin with the people.