Engaging ASEAN: US Policy in Southeast Asia

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By Ivan Boekelheide – A new chapter in US relations with Southeast Asia began on November
16th when President Barack Obama traveled to Singapore to convene the
first US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting.  The discussions highlighted the Obama
Administration’s commitment to engage the Southeast Asia region with
high level diplomacy and concrete proposals.   

The Obama
administration has expanded upon a policy begun by the Bush
Administration by deploying high ranking members for discussions in
Southeast Asia.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represented the US
at the 14th ASEAN Summit in Thailand where she articulated US concerns
in the region to attentive ASEAN leaders.  Not long after Secretary
Clinton’s trip, Senator Jim Webb, as chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, made a trip to Burma to negotiate the release of
an imprisoned American.  Senator Webb made the visit on his own
volition though it had the support of the US State Department.  The
culmination of high level diplomacy occurred with President Obama’s
visit to co-chair the US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting with ASEAN Chair and
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.  The President’s trip
underscored the increased relevance of ASEAN to US foreign policy.
the US and ASEAN have much to gain from increased engagement.  The US
benefits from having  a variety of partners under one entity in a
region rich in resources and development potential, but which also
faces extant economic, social and environmental challenges, including
adjusting to the current global financial crises.  ASEAN gains from
direct engagement with the world’s superpower in a relationship that is
not limited to greater geopolitical influence for the US.  Trade and
investment, a traditional staple of the US-ASEAN relationship, stands
to increase as renewed engagement could help swing greater investment
towards ASEAN despite the global financial crises.  Socially, the US
could have a greater impact on human rights and other social problems
within the area, as well as becoming a potential third party mediator
for disputes.  Politically, the world will see the increased influence
of the US in Southeast Asia as an indication of greater American
worldwide involvement, while the countries of ASEAN will gain a
powerful counterweight to the immense and growing power of China.

US attention to ASEAN has been exemplified by the US decision to
reassess policy in Burma, now officially known as Myanmar.  The US
announced a new attempt at dialogue would be made while maintaining
current sanctions, in order to find a way to better engage the Burmese
Junta.  The fresh approach has been enthusiastically embraced by ASEAN,
which has long advocated a reduction in sanctions against Burma.  With
ASEAN increasingly relieved of US pressure to confront the Burmese
generals, US-ASEAN engagement can proceed without US reservations
towards Burma hindering discussions with ASEAN as a group.

engagement in Southeast Asia is likely to increase competition with
China.  Already, China’s support for the Burmese Junta has helped
weaken the effects of US and EU sanctions while China reaps the
benefits of having little competition for the country’s resources.  Now
through increased engagement, the US is making moves to open up the
region and challenge China’s influence in both Burma and Southeast
Asia.  President Obama’s attendance at the Leaders Meeting prior to a
dialogue with Chinese leaders, demonstrates the importance of Southeast
Asia to US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.  
US strategy towards ASEAN can broaden US influence in Asia and further
balance the growing regional role of China.  After signing the Treaty
of Amity and Cooperation in July, the US now has removed an obstacle to
US participation in an Asian regional framework, as already enjoyed by
China, Japan and South Korea.  An early example of increased engagement
is a July 2009 US initiative that creates a formal partnership between
the Mississippi River Commission and the Mekong River Commission (MRC),
a cooperative management organization involving Thailand, Laos,
Cambodia and Vietnam.  The sister river partnership focuses on
cooperation on issues of health, education, the environment and
sustainable development of the shared water resources of the Lower
Mekong Basin, but can also help Mekong governments make better
decisions regarding more cooperative and sustainable development of the
The Obama Administration’s primary goals were
accomplished in Singapore when President Obama arrived at the Leaders
Meeting.  The President’s appearance concretely demonstrated US
commitment to Southeast Asia.  A consolidated and deepened US-ASEAN
relationship benefits both sides by furthering US regional interests
while raising the international stature of ASEAN.


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