Southeast Asia Skeptical of U.S. Pivot

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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.

Regional architecture
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.

Balancing China?
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.

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.

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