Making the Pivot To Asia Endure
The U.S. has to prove it has staying power to the nations of Southeast Asia
The unprecedented gathering of Southeast Asian leaders in California can be seen as a significant achievement for Barack Obama’s oft-dismissed “pivot” to Asia. Now the president needs to lay down a framework to sustain and deepen U.S. engagement with the region well after he leaves office.
China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have driven several members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to sidle closer to the U.S. Only steady, consistent engagement can overcome doubts about U.S. staying power in the region. After early stumbles, Obama has set a good precedent by committing the U.S. to regional meetings to forge stronger bonds.
More can be done to institutionalize closer ties with Southeast Asia, a $2.2 trillion market situated in a crucial part of the world. U.S. investment in Asean nations—amounting to $226 billion at the end of last year—is now more than that from China, Japan, and South Korea combined. A new plan will set up U.S. liaison offices in Singapore, Jakarta, and Bangkok to work with regional governments to deepen investment and trade ties.
The U.S. has an interest in promoting not just open markets in the region but also open societies, something young Southeast Asians—two-thirds of the region’s population is under 35—can be expected to demand. Obama should reiterate U.S. support for democratic values. Meanwhile, the administration must look for more ways to encourage local media, youth leaders, and civil groups to change their societies from within.
In building closer ties to Southeast Asia, the goal isn’t to lessen China’s influence per se. Asean has every reason to take advantage of the mainland’s markets and investment. The priority should be to establish a transparent, rules-based order that allows the free flow of commerce and reinforces stability. That would benefit all countries concerned. <BW>