The Pivot in Southeast Asia

Balancing Interests and Values

January 08, 2015


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Diplomacy and International Institutions


Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Senior Fellow Joshua Kurlantzick analyzes the effects of the Obama administration's pivot on Southeast Asia and argues that 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.

The U.S. rebalance to Asia 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 military-to-military cooperation.

Kurlantzick contends that the White House has focused too much on the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, at the expense of attention to the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore—that are of greater value strategically and economically. 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. 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 the region.

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