The intertwined nature of the post-Cold War geopolitics that comprises economics and strategy, rise of a competitive-cum-aggressive China, and a regional involvement riveted on multilateralism has transformed the US’ role in the Southeast Asian region.
The US has maintained and built up its alliances in this region. Simultaneously, however, the region has witnessed the phenomenal rise of China in the past two decades, creating a strategic conundrum for the regional states – to balance against China by allying themselves with the US or bandwagoning with China. This uncertainty among the states has not only redefined the role of the US in the region but also the roles of specific states of this region. Also, since the region sits at what many see as the periphery of the US strategic-core (primarily seen as the region encircled by five US military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region), the US as an extra-regional power requires a multi-pronged strategy to sustain its influence in this part of the world.
There are at least three important factors upon which the current US strategy hinges on in the Southeast Asian region: protecting its economic stakes in the region; standing up for its strategic stakes and partners in the region (primarily comprising the efforts to bolster its rebalancing strategy); and regional stability.
Trade with the ASEAN forms an important part of the US’ economic engagement with Southeast Asia and the main driver in this regard has been the 2006 US-ASEAN Trade and Investment Arrangement. This was followed by the launch of the US-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement initiative – a new framework for economic cooperation designed to expand trade and investment ties between the US and the ASEAN, in the year 2012. These major initiatives, along with a few others, have taken the US-ASEAN trade figures to approximately $200 billion. In circumstances of such high and interdependent economic stakes with Southeast Asian countries, it is of utmost priority for the US to ensure safe sea-transit of trade through the region.
Thus, protecting the Sea Lines of Communication forms an important part of the US security dynamics in this region. The US has engaged the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as the primary forum to ensure regional security. Cooperation between the US and the ARF now covers counter-terrorism, transnational crime, disaster relief and maritime security, among others. The US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the Brunei edition of the ARF meet in 2013 ensured that a multilateral management of security through regional institutions remains the focus of the US in the region – with primary concerns being maritime/territorial disputes and a code of conduct in the region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership as the economic leg of US’ rebalancing will also form an important part of its strategy in this region, with Cambodia as one of the key players.
The US’ strategic stakes in Southeast Asia have gradually been co-opted within its ‘Rebalancing’, since 2010. The US’ cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam is very crucial as Washington looks towards a larger military presence in this region. In April 2014, the Philippines and the US signed a deal that is expected to provide American troops with greater access to military bases in the country. The US’ base in Singapore too is expected to play a supporting role in maritime security and patrolling by the US’ 7th Fleet.
As a matter of strategic consideration, the US has pushed forth the concept of the Indo-Pacific, in an effort to institutionalise it. Concomitantly, the maritime gateway between the western Pacific and the eastern Indian Ocean has been left as an open ended security point as opposed to a maritime chokepoint. By doing so, the US intends to not only allow free flow between the two oceans but also gain from the collective opinion coming out of the larger conglomerate of democracies of Asia, in favour of a code of conduct for monitoring maritime behaviour. A collective bargaining vis-à-vis China will hedge against its maritime assertiveness that has spread its tentacles up to the Indian Ocean. Among other concerns, the US’ strategic goals in the region will also include countering the Chinese maritime silk route through which China seeks to connect with the Southeast Asian Region. China recently set up a $1.6 billion fund to take forward its ambitious ‘maritime silk road plan’ to build ports and enhance maritime connectivity with Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean littoral countries. This is on the back of bellicose positions that China takes vis-à-vis some countries in the region.
For a foreseeable future, the US will look to commit itself in Southeast Asia towards maintaining peace, security and freedom of navigation in the region. Its engagement with individual countries of this region is going to be on a multilateral basis, even if it means a curtailment in Washington’s influence on the countries of the region. The US will try to avoid military confrontations with Beijing, even as regional stability continues to be of primary concern.
The countries of this region, on the other hand, will try and balance between the hegemony of Beijing and the influence from Washington.