U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations in the Age of the Rebalance

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    As the Barack Obama administration moved towards its last year in office, the United States’ relations with ASEAN were ostensibly sound. However, Washington's future ties with the region remained contingent on larger forces of global change that could undermine such relationships. Most regional leaders quietly welcomed, for example, the American naval destroyer USS Lassen's passage within the twelve nautical mile territorial limit claimed by China at Subi Reef near the Spratly Islands during late October 2015, as a symbolic demonstration of the United States’ determination to maintain freedom of navigation (FON) in the South China Sea. If China continues to rise, the United States will invariably be viewed by ASEAN policymakers as an indispensable counterweight for maintaining regional stability in Asia. American policy planners, however, are facing increasingly daunting challenges in the Middle East, in Europe and from international terrorism which is increasingly threatening to envelop their homeland. Given the growing intensity of such challenges, matching resources with the capabilities required to implement and sustain a viable U.S. geopolitical footprint in Asia will become increasingly formidable. The case of the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” strategy is illustrative. This policy approach was touted by key officials serving during President Obama's first term in office (2009–12) as “a sustained and multi-dimensional strategy” rather than as “simply a shifting of [U.S.] military resources” to the Asia-Pacific region. It was represented as a posture with widely diverse diplomatic, economic and cultural designs underpinning Washington's regional engagement. However, one of its key instigators, Kurt Campbell (Obama's initial Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs) has since lamented that the military aspects of this strategy have been exaggerated relative to its broader objectives, including the solidification of the international norms and law upon which Asia- Pacific order-building should be predicated, strengthening regional prosperity and promoting democratic values. A subsequent policy correction in this regard has indeed been realized, but largely by default. Confronted with intensifying budgetary constraints affecting all U.S. government expenditures, the U.S. Department of Defense has recently served notice in key documents forwarded to the American Congress that the FY2016 U.S. defence expenditures would be predicated on a “global” rather than an “Asian basis” due to intensifying global strategic concerns. How the United States has adjusted its rebalancing policy as it applies to Southeast Asia during the period 2014–15 is initially discussed.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSoutheast Asian Affairs 2016
    Editors Malcolm Cook et al.
    Place of PublicationSingapore
    PublisherISEAS Publishing
    ISBN (Print)9789814695664
    Publication statusPublished - 2016


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