- The United States, Southeast Asia, and Asia-Pacific Security
During the first decade of the new century, many in Southeast Asia, whether rightly or wrongly, held to the notion that the George W. Bush administration had placed their concerns at the bottom of the "to-address" list. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq consumed the bulk of Washington's attention, while troubles in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, the U.S. economy, and elsewhere crowded the White House schedule. Apart from showing some concern about terrorist activities in Southeast Asia, the Bush government did not seem interested in the subregion. Top-level U.S. involvement in the multilateral institutions convened by the subregional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was also irregular. The ostensible U.S. neglect of Southeast Asia and the initiatives pursued by the governments of that subregion generated disquiet. Regional actors expressed their concerns that Washington's disinterest could upset regional order and stability while costing the United States the opportunity to shape the security architecture and agenda in Asia.1
In contrast to the episodic U.S. engagement with ASEAN during the Bush administration, the diplomatic activism of the Barack Obama administration has been a breath of fresh air to most Southeast Asian states. Although Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and economic issues still rank high on the Obama government's agenda, the Democratic administration acted quickly to reach out to ASEAN countries. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a point to visit Indonesia and the ASEAN Secretariat in February 2009 on her first official trip overseas and declared that the Obama administration sought close relations with ASEAN. In July 2009, Clinton participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum and subsequently signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. In November 2009, President Obama and the leaders of ASEAN held their first ever summit meeting, and this was followed by another gathering [End Page 2] in New York in September 2010. Finally, the United States has accepted ASEAN's invitation to participate in the East Asia Summit, with Obama slated to attend the meeting in Jakarta in 2011.
Washington, then, has sent an unmistakable signal that it is stepping up engagement with ASEAN and the regional institutions that ASEAN convenes. The Obama administration, in fact, appears to have taken up and acted on most of the pertinent recommendations proposed by practitioners and scholars in the January 2009 issue of this journal.2 Diplomatic visits and high-level participation in regional dialogues are undoubtedly important symbolic gestures, conveying commitment and interest. That is the first step. Pursuing and putting in place effective institutional mechanisms to sustain stability, order, and greater cooperation in the Asia-Pacific over the long term will be tougher but no less necessary. Toward that end, the Obama administration must take practical steps to address a number of issues that may arise as it switches gears and intensifies its involvement in regional matters. These include the rationalization of the roles of the multilateral institutions in the region; building confidence, trust, and stronger institutions via cooperation on nontraditional security matters; and pursuing further liberalization of trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific.
The ASEAN governments' unease with the United States' episodic attention to Southeast Asia during the George W. Bush years stems from one key concern. There are fears that if the regional balance of power and influence is upset because of U.S. indifference to developments in the Asia-Pacific, stability, which refers to "the absence of serious military, economic, or political conflict among nation-states," could be threatened.3 Such an outcome would redound to the detriment of the interests and security of Southeast Asian states. Interstate violence among the major powers in East Asia would, of course, adversely affect trade and financial activities, derailing the development efforts of regional governments. Any conflict involving China, Japan, and the United States would also put immense pressure on Southeast Asian administrations to choose sides. The United [End Page 3] States has basing agreements and collaborative military programs with a number of ASEAN countries, and it is conceivable that these bases would be used by U.S. forces in...