Nevertheless, the reaction of Southeast Asian states to the new activism in US policy towards them has by no means been uniformly enthusiastic. ASEAN's members are notably diverse in terms of their history, political systems and international outlook, and there has always been a spectrum of views among them, and in their domestic debates, regarding America's regional role. Complexity characterises the positions even of the Philippines and Thailand, both formal treaty allies of the US.
Nervous about the Philippines' effective lack of an external defence capability as maritime tensions with China have escalated, particularly after a naval stand-off began over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, Manila has agreed with the US to reinforce substantially their bilateral defence relations, which had languished after the closure of major military bases in the country in 1992. As a result, US navy ships have made additional port calls at the former Subic Bay base, there have been more joint exercises (including brief deployments of US P-3 maritime-patrol aircraft), and the US has supplied additional surplus military equipment. The US is also helping to establish a National Coast Watch Centre, intended to enhance the Philippines' awareness of threats to its maritime interests.
However, though President Benigno Aquino's government has broadly supported the US rebalance in light of the Philippines' pressing security requirements, there may be limits to this military re-engagement. Though the US and the Philippines are bound by their bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty dating from 1952, it is unclear whether the treaty applies in the event of conflict over features that Manila claims in the South China Sea and thus how the US should respond to an escalating crisis there between China and the Philippines. If the US were to assert that the treaty would indeed apply, this might embolden the Philippines and thereby risk entangling America in a dispute of no strategic importance to itself; making clear that the treaty would not apply, however, could risk encouraging Chinese adventurism. And while the US is interested in securing greater access to Philippine airfields and perhaps deploying P-3s on a longer-term basis, there is apparently reluctance in Manila to accede to any arrangement that might be construed by domestic political opponents as constituting new US bases.
In January-February 2012, Thailand hosted the latest in the long-running Cobra Gold exercise series, reputedly now the world's largest multinational military manoeuvres, involving 9,000 US personnel, 3,600 from Thailand, and smaller numbers from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea. But despite US efforts to intensify security relations with Bangkok, and notwithstanding Bangkok's concerns over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea at the expense of fellow ASEAN members, Thai foreign policy has continued to follow its traditional course of 'bending with the wind': in April Yingluck agreed a series of deals with China's premier, Wen Jiabao, which elevated their bilateral relations to a 'strategic partnership' three months before Thailand assumed the role of ASEAN's coordinator of relations with Beijing. In June, the Thai government's apparent fear of offending China forced NASA to abandon a plan to fly U-2 atmospheric research aircraft from U-Tapao air base. The intensifying relations with China include a defence dimension: in July, a powerful Thai military delegation led by Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat visited Beijing to meet their counterparts there. A major Thai arms-procurement project, revealed in September 2012, will use Chinese technology to develop a guided multiple rocket launch system.
Singapore is not a US ally, but its defence and security relations with Washington, expanded and codified under a Strategic Framework Agreement signed in 2005, are in many ways closer than those of the Philippines and Thailand. US naval deployments to Singapore will expand significantly during 2013 with the arrival of a first LCS; four such ships may be operating from the city-state by 2017. But while Singapore is apparently content to provide quasi-basing facilities to the US Navy, its refusal to be drawn into an alliance underlines the reality that it remains determinedly neutral with respect to US-China differences. However, it is possible to imagine circumstances that could severely test that neutrality, such as the US deployment of LCS or other naval vessels from Singapore into the South China Sea in the event of seriously escalating tensions between China and the Philippines.
Other key Southeast Asian states have been even more cautious in their responses to the core security aspects of the US rebalance. Vietnam is, like the Philippines, a 'front-line state' in the South China Sea, where it is in vehement dispute with China over not just all the Spratly Islands, but also the Paracels and other features, and fought a major war with China as recently as 1979. Despite the historical backdrop of the bitterly fought Second Indochina War with the US, Hanoi evidently sees advantages in a revived US interest in Southeast Asia if this helps to constrain China's behaviour. However, Vietnam's government has no interest in further undermining its relations with Beijing as a consequence of developing closer military links with the US, and has continued to strictly ration US Navy port calls in the face of intense American interest in regaining access to Cam Ranh Bay naval base, as demonstrated by Panetta's visit to the facility in June.
Malaysia and Indonesia are both Muslim-majority states where Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Zionism, trenchant nationalism and neutralism are central elements of political discourse. Despite their generally pro-Western inclination, their governments must tread carefully with respect to their relations with the US for fear of alienating important domestic constituencies. US defence and security relations with Malaysia remain limited. At the same time, though a claimant in the Spratly Islands, Malaysia's government has maintained a positive attitude towards its relations with China, its most important trading partner. In September, the two countries held their first bilateral 'defence and security consultation', agreeing to strengthen 'mutual exchange and cooperation' in the military sphere. Malaysia may purchase or even produce Chinese missile systems.
In November 2011, Obama and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, reaffirmed their commitment to the bilateral 'comprehensive partnership' launched a year previously. There is no doubt that relations with the US form an important part of Indonesia's increasingly confident international diplomacy. However, the strategic benefits of this partnership for the US may be limited. Like Malaysia and Thailand, Indonesia places great emphasis on further developing mutually beneficial relations with China. In the defence sphere, in August 2012 Beijing agreed that Indonesian industry could produce the C-705 anti-ship missile under licence. In a remarkable assertion of Indonesia's freedom of action, in September Jakarta even spoke of strengthening its defence links with North Korea.
In the longer term, one intriguing possibility is that Washington might also develop security relations with a reforming Myanmar. Panetta hinted at this, saying in June that discussions about 'how we can improve our defence relationship with their country' would be 'part and parcel' of encouraging Myanmar's reforms. Given the extent to which Myanmar was thought to have fallen into China's geopolitical orbit prior to the reform process that President Thein Sein began in 2011, such a development could represent an important strategic windfall for the US. However, it is likely that significant security relations could develop only if there were a major change in Myanmar's government following the general election in 2015.
Southeast Asian scepticism
Policymakers throughout Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific are acutely conscious of and concerned about the implications for their countries' foreign and security policy orientations of the changing regional distribution of power, particularly in terms of China's growing power and assertiveness. At the same time, though, remaining on good terms with Beijing is important for their economic health, and most Southeast Asian states (the Philippines being the exception) have been unwilling to jeopardise their trade and investment links with China.
But Southeast Asian governments also harbour substantial doubts over the durability of America's role, and have not been easily convinced by the rhetoric of the US rebalance. They understand well that there is a significant public-relations element in pronouncements about the long-term viability of the US security role. Southeast Asians have seen a series of outside powers come and go. They recognise that, as the US reduces its forces in Europe and withdraws from Afghanistan, the Asia-Pacific will naturally be the main defence focus for America. But they also know that Washington's longer-term regional commitment could become hostage to fiscal realities and to changes of administration. In these circumstances, most Southeast Asian states are keeping their strategic options open.