By Ernie Bower
The biggest challenge for the United States in Southeast Asia in 2012 will be to focus and follow through. The biggest opportunity is supporting real political reform in Myanmar and thereby strengthening ASEAN.
In 2011, President Obama and his foreign policy and national security teams made a compelling case that the United States was pivoting toward Asia. He said the Asia Pacific region will be the center point for new economic growth and security concerns in the first part of the 21st century. Asian allies and strategic partners were encouraged by those words, backed up by actions including American leadership in trade with the Transpacific Partnership negotiations and the US attending the East Asia Summit for the first time, announcing new basing agreements in Australia and following through with strong and consistent focus on resolving South China Sea disputes.
While 2011 was an impressive year for advancing U.S. goals and engagement in Asia, partners in the region are anxious about whether the United States can sustain the new level of commitment it has staked out. Most Asian countries have sought a more robust US presence in the region to help convince a rising China to engage in regional frameworks that will result in the collective development of rules around trade and security. They want a China that asks the question what it “should” do instead of what it “can” do.
China’s actions in the South China Sea and in maritime areas in northeast Asia in the past year have triggered atavistic anxieties among its neighbors. Accordingly, Asia is concerned about the United States’ financial capability to sustain and expand its presence and questions whether the political bandwidth can be sustained in an election year.
In the United States, the natural inclination of politicians in an election year is to focus almost exclusively on issues that will get them re-elected. Foreign policy, trade and national security issues rarely rank high on that list, and campaign professionals assiduously steer their candidates away from these topics.
This will present a real challenge for the Obama White House to remain focused and follow through on its commitments to Asian engagement. This White House has already demonstrated its sensitivity to foreign travel and potentially alienating its labor base with trade agreements. Alarming new levels of partisanship coupled with brinksmanship on budgetary issues in Congress will present additional threats to sustaining the U.S. commitment.
Key members of the Obama foreign policy and national security team are likely to leave their posts in 2012. Losing Asia focused leaders like Hillary Clinton will present a major challenge for the president.
If the United States falters so early on in its self-proclaimed new focus on Asia, allies and partners in the region will be forced to ask questions and explore hedging strategies that could undermine the vast potential for new security partnerships, growing trade and investment, and strengthening regional architecture.
The biggest opportunity for Southeast Asia in 2012 is the chance for Myanmar (or Burma) to emerge from the darkness of five decades of repression and self-exile from engagement with the global community. Myanmar’s progress is important to Southeast Asia, for the grouping has been dragging the draconian country around like a ball and chain since it joined in 1997. Substantial actions have backed up the rhetoric of the government, including the release of many political prisoners, reform of laws limiting use of the internet and restricting the media as well as free association. In addition, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and she and her party are allowed to run in by-elections planned for early 2012.
Myanmar’s reforms offer the United States a substantial opportunity to deepen engagement in ASEAN and supports the administration’s strategy to use ASEAN as a foundation for building new regional trade and security architecture that will encourage China to come to the table and work with its other Asia Pacific countries to establish rules governing trade and security that will promote regional peace and prosperity, and deconflict areas of concern such as the South China Sea.
Additionally, political reform in Myanmar is indicative of a trend of continued empowerment of people and voters across Southeast Asia. Should this trend hold, regional governments will be compelled to accelerate campaigns against corruption, advancing political reforms and strengthening institutions. These steps augur well for a just and sustainable governance infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Over the coming decade, this trend towards empowerment and governance may have more impact on China than Chinese economic momentum has on Southeast Asia.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.