Since the start of President Barack Obama’s first term, the United States has pursued a policy of rebuilding ties with Southeast Asia. By 2011 this regional focus had become part of a broader strategy toward Asia called the “pivot,” or rebalance. This approach includes shifting economic, diplomatic, and military resources to the region from other parts of the world. In Southeast Asia, a central part of the pivot involves building relations with countries in mainland Southeast Asia once shunned by Washington because of their autocratic governments, and reviving close U.S. links to Thailand and Malaysia. The Obama administration has also upgraded defense partnerships throughout the region, followed through on promises to send high-level officials to Southeast Asian regional meetings, and increased port calls to and basing of combat ships in Southeast Asia.
Yet despite this attention, the Obama administration’s Southeast Asia policy has been badly misguided. The policy has been wrong in two important ways. First, the White House has focused too much on the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, which—with the exception of Vietnam—have provided minimal strategic benefits in return. This focus on mainland Southeast Asia has distracted attention from the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore—that are of greater value strategically and economically. Indonesia, in particular, is a thriving democracy and an increasingly important stabilizing force in regional and international affairs. Second, increased U.S. ties with mainland Southeast Asia have facilitated political regression in the region by empowering brutal militaries, condoning authoritarian regimes, and alienating young Southeast Asian democrats. This regression is particularly apparent in Thailand. It seemed to have established a working democracy in the 1990s, but has regressed politically more than any other state in Southeast Asia over the past twenty years. In May 2014, Thailand was taken over by a military junta. Reform also has stalled in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. This political regression has had and will have strategic downsides for the United States as well. In the long run, young Southeast Asians—the region’s future leaders—will become increasingly anti-American and an authoritarian and unstable mainland Southeast Asia will prove a poor partner on economic and strategic issues for the United States.
Through the remainder of the Obama presidency, the United States should refocus its Southeast Asia policy in two ways: prioritize the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia and restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region. In particular, the United States should slow and, in some cases, halt growing military-to-military ties with the countries of mainland Southeast Asia such as Myanmar. Washington also should refocus its aid on democracy promotion in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the United States should upgrade its relations with Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam by working to sign a treaty alliance with Singapore and expanding diplomatic, economic, and military ties with these four nations. Such a shift in Southeast Asia policy would allow the United States to better align Asia policy with democratic values and maximize the strategic benefits of U.S. interest in Southeast Asia.
For more on how Obama’s Southeast Asia policy has gone wrong, and what the administration can still do to fix it, see my new CFR Working Paper, "The Pivot in Southeast Asia: Balancing Interests and Values."