President Obama's participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS) for a second consecutive year confirms the United States' heightened attention to and engagement with Asia. Earlier, many Asian observers had doubted that a U.S. president could remain committed to attending the annual summit, particularly when the 2012 meeting was hosted by Cambodia, a relatively small country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The fact that Obama kept his commitment to attend the EAS is evidence that the United States is stepping up its rebalancing efforts in Asia. This essay offers a perspective from Thailand—a traditional U.S. ally—on the motivations behind U.S. rebalancing, as well as on the policy's implications for Thailand and Southeast Asia as a whole.
As seen from Thailand, there are four major motives behind the United States' rebalancing strategy. The first two concern China, while the other two motives relate to policy reorientation in the United States itself.
First, China has gained considerable influence in East Asia, thanks in part to its strong relations with ASEAN. China became a dialogue partner in 1991, and its constant participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) since 1994 and in other subsequent regional cooperation schemes has enabled Beijing to play a key role in the region. Alongside Japan, China has also been instrumental in setting the agenda for the ASEAN +3 forum. Among the most prominent achievements of the ASEAN +3 is the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM), the currency swap scheme aimed to help member countries suffering from a financial crisis. As the world's largest foreign-reserves holder, China is a formidable partner in the CMIM. Further, Beijing has pledged support for the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) and other programs to improve logistics connectivity, including the construction of roads, bridges, river ways, and high-speed trains, which will further link southern China with ASEAN. [End Page 31]
On the economic front, China-ASEAN trade surged from $7.6 billion in 1990 to $186.5 billion in 2009, and China has been ASEAN's biggest trade partner ever since.1 This strong relationship is largely the result of the China-ASEAN free trade agreement, which was agreed to in 2002 and went into full effect in 2010. In the socio-cultural realm, China participates in a number of exchange programs with ASEAN countries, and Beijing's so-called panda diplomacy has likewise been effective. After leasing a couple of pandas to Thailand a decade ago, China has recently made similar deals with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Moreover, Chinese tourists have become top visitors to many ASEAN nations, including Thailand.2 In short, China-ASEAN relations have been strengthened in several areas spanning the political, economic, and socio-cultural realms. Against such a backdrop, the United States could not remain on the sidelines.
Second, China has become more assertive in its external posture. As Aaron Friedberg observed in the July issue of Asia Policy, this increasing assertiveness has been manifest on a variety of fronts, including Beijing's defense of North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean vessel, its confrontation with Japan over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near disputed islands in the East China Sea, and intensifying territorial claims in the South China Sea.3 At the same time, China continues to enhance its military capabilities, as demonstrated in the development of stealth fighters and an aircraft carrier. Given the strength of the Chinese economy, the country's defense budget will only increase in coming years.
Third, the lack of attention paid to Southeast Asia during the George W. Bush administration, which was largely preoccupied with the war on terrorism in the Middle East, generated unfavorable perceptions of the United States. In particular, regional states noted the consecutive absences of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the ARF meetings. During the Obama administration, the United States has sought to re-engage with Southeast Asia through sending high-level envoys, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to visit the region and attend multilateral forums such as the EAS...