A central theme of US policy towards Asia during 2012 has been the strengthening of America's military deployments, political relationships and economic partnerships in Southeast Asia. It is evident that China's growing power and assertiveness have provided an important stimulus for renewed US policy activism in a sub-region towards which some observers had detected neglect by Washington over the previous decade. But while Southeast Asian states may take advantage of renewed American interest to hedge against China's rise, most of them will keep their strategic options open.
Against the backdrop of severe financial constraints, the impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and substantial reductions in American troops in Europe, the Pentagon's Defense Strategic Guidance document in January talked of 'pivoting' US national security efforts towards Asia, seen as the increasingly important locus of US strategic and economic interests. However, within months, US officials - such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he spoke at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June - were avoiding this terminology, which did not highlight the strong sense of long-term commitment that Washington wished to convey. Instead, they spoke of a 'rebalance' to the Asia-Pacific. According to Panetta, 'as part of this rebalancing effort we are ... strengthening our presence in Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean region'. In addition to rotating US marines and supporting aviation units through northern Australia, the US would deepen its strategic cooperation with Thailand; pursue 'mutually beneficial capability enhancements' with the Philippines, while working to improve its 'maritime presence'; forward-deploy littoral combat ships (LCS) to Singapore; and enhance security partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam.
A new emphasis on Southeast Asia as a regional focus in US foreign and security policy has provided a broader setting for these military developments. In his June speech, Panetta also talked about Washington's strong support for Asia's 'deepening regional security architecture', including his own involvement in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus, which involved the ten ASEAN defence ministers and those of eight key dialogue partners. On the South China Sea, where tensions have escalated between territorial claimants that are members of ASEAN (notably the Philippines and Vietnam) and China since 2009, Panetta emphasised US support for efforts 'to develop a binding code of conduct that would create a rules-based framework for regulating the conduct of parties'.
That the rebalance is a priority not only for the Pentagon was clear from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gruelling schedule of diplomatic visits, which saw her travel to all ten ASEAN member states, as well as Timor-Leste, between late 2011 and late 2012. In July, Clinton was in Cambodia to participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (a foreign ministers' meeting for ASEAN members and their dialogue partners) for the fourth consecutive time - a marked contrast with the patchy attendance of her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. In November, President Barack Obama made the striking gesture of visiting Southeast Asia during his first foreign trip following his re-election, joining Clinton for a visit to Myanmar (the first ever by a serving US president) with a view to encouraging further political and economic reforms, and also to Thailand where they met Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra 'to underscore our strong alliance', and to Cambodia.
The visit to Cambodia, which held the ASEAN chair, underscored US willingness to support ASEAN's centrality in Asian regional multilateralism. It came at a time when China's strategy - evident at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July, and again at the ASEAN Summit in November - had seemed to be aimed at disrupting ASEAN unity, at least in relation to the South China Sea. Obama participated in the East Asian Summit - the first time the US had done so - and co-chaired a US-ASEAN Leaders' Meeting, which agreed to institutionalise itself on an annual basis 'as a further step towards raising the US-ASEAN partnership to a strategic level', in the words of the White House.
From the US perspective at least, there is an important economic imperative for this incipient strategic partnership: with a total population of 620 million and a combined annual GDP of more than US$2.2 trillion, the ASEAN states are collectively already its fourth-largest export market and constitute a potentially significant motor for helping to restore momentum to the US economy. At the same time, expanding economic ties could work in favour of Washington's broader influence in a sub-region that has seemed increasingly in thrall to the rapidly expanding economic power of China. The US-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement Initiative, launched in Phnom Penh, provides for 'concrete joint activities' aimed at expanding trade and investment, and preparing ASEAN countries for joining 'high-standard trade agreements', such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership which the US is negotiating with Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and six other Pacific Rim states.
The Obama administration has consistently denied that rivalry with China has motivated the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, and has sought both to maintain equable relations with Beijing and to reassure ASEAN member states concerned that the strong military and security element of America's new interest in Southeast Asia does not indicate the beginnings of a new Cold War, which might ultimately force them to take sides. In this vein, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell went to Beijing in placatory mode immediately before the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in July. Meanwhile, the commercial dimension so much in evidence in Phnom Penh may have helped to demonstrate that the rebalance is not simply a matter of sharp-edged power politics.
At the same time, though, it is widely understood that the US rebalance is at its core a reaction to China's growing power, confidence and assertiveness in a part of the world that it assesses to be strategically important. Indeed, there is a widespread appreciation in most Southeast Asian states of a considerable harmony of interests with the US in this respect. Southeast Asia has benefited on a large scale from China's economic expansion, particularly since the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area agreement in 2010. However, rising Southeast Asian concern over the geopolitical implications of China's assertiveness in the South China Sea has meant that the rebalance is seen more positively than might have been the case had Beijing's regional behaviour been more obviously in accord with the 'peaceful development' narrative that it uses to characterise its international policies.