Southeast Asia’s American Embrace

All Southeast Asian states want to take advantage of the benefits of a rising China, yet none wants it to be in a position to dominate the region strategically. All welcome America’s strategic ‘pivot’ towards Asia because they hope it will provide a counterbalance to China’s growing weight. But like Australia, Southeast Asian states worry about a future where their major economic partner may come into conflict with their security guarantor. Southeast Asian countries have very different histories and relationships with the United States and China. But the uniformity with which they now welcome America’s engagement in their region is striking.

Jessica Brown is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Jakarta’s Juggling Act: Balancing China and America in the Asia-Pacific.  She holds a Masters Degree in International Studies from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor or Arts (Hons.) in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.  She has been published in major Australian and Asian newspapers and is regularly asked to comment on public policy issues in the Australian media.

Watch Jessica Brown’s full lecture – Southeast Asia’s American Embrace: Why Washington is Welcome Once Again and the Q&A.



Southeast Asia’s American Embrace

In November 2011, Barack Obama made his first (and long-awaited) official visit to Australia. Australia and the United States share a close relationship, but this visit was more significant than usual.

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, and the global centre of economic gravity shifting to Asia, Obama came to Australia not just to bolster our alliance but to sell a message: America’s strategic ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific.

In his speech to the Parliament, Obama announced the strengthening of our defence cooperation, primarily by increasing the number of US troops stationed in Darwin. But this speech, like his other speeches throughout the weeklong Asia-Pacific tour, was also crafted for a wider Asian audience.

A few weeks before the tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began outlining this policy shift. In a cover story for Foreign Policy, she said: ‘One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will … be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region … We are prepared to lead.’

America has long been the preponderant military power in Southeast Asia. But since the end of the Cold War, it has been dogged by the perception that its interest in the region has waned – sentiments exacerbated by terrorism and Washington’s focus on wars in the Middle East.

Now with China emerging as a major world power, and tensions in the hotly disputed South China Sea running high, America is especially keen to bolster its leadership credentials in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asian countries approach America and China quite differently, but all see America’s presence as a useful way of balancing a growing China. Recent dramatic policy shifts by Vietnam and Burma highlight this. Many of these countries have only recently been free of colonialism, and value regional autonomy and sovereignty above all else. They may have different reasons for welcoming America’s renewed interest in the region, but they welcome it nevertheless.

Jessica Brown is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. This is an extract of a speech she will give on Tuesday evening at the CIS. Click here to register for this event.