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Ambivalent Engagement: The United States and Regional Security in Southeast Asia after the Cold War

Ambivalent Engagement: The United States and Regional Security in Southeast Asia after the Cold War

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Ambivalent Engagement: The United States and Regional Security in Southeast Asia after the Cold War

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Jul 11, 2017


The paradox of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia

The Obama administration’s pivot-to-Asia policy establishes an important place for Southeast Asia in U.S. foreign policy. But Washington’s attention to the region has fluctuated dramatically, from the intense intervention of the cold war era to near neglect in more recent years. As a consequence, countries in Southeast Asia worry that the United States once again will become distracted by other problems and disengage from the region.

This book written by an astute observer of the region and U.S. policy casts light on the sources of these anxieties. A main consideration is that it still is not clear how Southeast Asia fits into U.S. strategy for Asia and the broader world. Is the region central to U.S. policymaking, or an afterthought?

Ambivalent Engagement highlights a dilemma that is becoming increasingly conspicuous and problematic. Southeast Asia continues to rely on the United States to play an active role in the region even though it is an external power. But the countries of Southeast Asia have very different views about precisely what role the United States should play. The consequences of this ambivalence will grow in importance with the expanding role of yet another outside power, China.

Jul 11, 2017

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Ambivalent Engagement - Joseph Chinyong Liow


For a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world has enjoyed an era of deepening global interdependence, characterized by the absence of the threat of great power war, spreading democracy, and declining levels of conflict and poverty. Now, much of that is at risk as the regional order in the Middle East unravels, the security architecture in Europe is again under threat, and great power tensions loom in Asia.

The Geopolitics in the 21st Century series, published under the auspices of the Order from Chaos project at Brookings, will analyze the major dynamics at play and offer ideas and strategies to guide critical countries and key leaders on how they should act to preserve and renovate the established international order to secure peace and prosperity for another generation.




Brookings Institution Press

Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2017


1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the Brookings Institution Press.

The Brookings Institution is a private nonprofit organization devoted to research, education, and publication on important issues of domestic and foreign policy. Its principal purpose is to bring the highest quality independent research and analysis to bear on current and emerging policy problems. Interpretations or conclusions in Brookings publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data

Names: Liow, Joseph Chinyong, 1972– author.

Title: Ambivalent engagement : the United States and regional security in Southeast Asia after the Cold War / Joseph Chinyong Liow.

Description: Washington, D.C. : Brookings Institution Press, [2017] | Includes bibliographical references.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017010288 (print) | LCCN 2017012103 (ebook) | ISBN 9780815729686 | ISBN 9780815729679 | ISBN 9780815729679 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780815729686 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: United States—Foreign relations—Southeast Asia. | Southeast Asia—Foreign relations—United States. | National security—United States. | National security—Southeast Asia. | United States—Foreign Relations—2001–2009. | United States—Foreign relations—2009–

Classification: LCC DS525.9.U6 (ebook) | LCC DS525.9.U6 L56 2017 (print) | DDC 355/.0330959—dc23

LC record available at

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Typeset in Sabon and Scala Sans

Composition by Westchester Publishing Services

Dedicated to the memory of

S. R. Nathan

July 3, 1924–August 22, 2016




1  Ambivalent Engagement?

2  Sources of Anxiety

3  Engagement and Estrangement

4  Global Terrorism’s Second Front

5  Missed Opportunities

6  The Pivot and Southeast Asia

7  Piecemeal Progress

8  The United States in Southeast Asia: Prospect and Retrospect

9  Policy Considerations and Recommendations

Appendix: Congressional Bills Involving Southeast Asia (1993–2016)




BY THE END OF the Second World War, Southeast Asia had emerged as a region of growing strategic import to the United States. Wartime circumstances had compelled Washington to reassess its role in the wider Asia Pacific region. Although the United States had been hitherto reluctant to enter the war, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor provoked an American response that by August 1945 transformed the country into a global superpower with global strategic interests. As the Second World War gave way to the Cold War, Southeast Asia became a major geopolitical shatterbelt, defined as strategically oriented regions that are both deeply divided internally and caught up in the competition between great powers of the geostrategic realms.¹ For the United States, Southeast Asia assumed crucial importance to the grand strategy of containment designed to curb the growth of communism, which proved a particularly appealing ideology to elements within the anticolonial movements of the region. This grand strategy, predicated on the domino theory (namely, the belief that the falling of any regime in Southeast Asia into communist hands would trigger a domino effect), eventually culminated in the United States’ doomed involvement in Vietnam. Etched deep into the American psyche, the Vietnam War eventually created a distaste for the deployment of American troops in military expeditions overseas and prompted a reassessment of the place of Southeast Asia in the wider strategic interests of the United States. For the rest of the Cold War, Southeast Asia fell off the American foreign policy radar.

Although the noncommunist Southeast Asian states did not expect American involvement in Vietnam to continue indefinitely, they were alarmed at the manner of the final disengagement and the immediate implications that followed. In the event, the fall of Saigon galvanized Southeast Asian states into action. In 1976, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened at the level of a summit for the very first time. The summit was an offspring of Cold War politics. At the same time, to prevent the self-fulfilling prophecy of the domino theory, regional states adjusted their postures accordingly: Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines swiftly normalized ties with China, while other states worked diplomatically to improve relations with Beijing (short of formal normalization).² In the meantime, American ambivalence toward the region ushered in an era of policy neglect in U.S.–Southeast Asian relations, which exercised the noncommunist regional states throughout the 1980s.

Regional concerns were hardly placated by the uncertainties that confronted Southeast Asia at the end of the Cold War, especially when a major strategic reassessment of American global interests and priorities undertaken by the Clinton administration prompted speculative murmurs of American withdrawal from the Asia Pacific region. Although what eventually transpired was more a reordering of American foreign policy priorities rather than outright withdrawal, it nevertheless was interpreted in Southeast Asian capitals as a major downgrading of the region’s importance in Washington’s larger post–Cold War grand strategy, to the extent that one could be discerned. Attempts by American officials to explain this retrenchment using a congenial syllogism—that Southeast Asia was more peaceful compared with other regions in the world and hence there was no urgency for a strong U.S. presence—did little to assuage these fears. Conventional wisdom further holds that the lapse of American leases to Philippine military bases in the early 1990s and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. military forces served to register a manifestation of this retrenchment, even though Philippine domestic political circumstances also doubtless played a part in hastening the U.S. departure.

If the Clinton administration’s Southeast Asia policy can be described as neglect, or even estrangement in the words shared to me by a senior Singaporean diplomat, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama saw something of a reinvigoration of American interest in the region, albeit for different reasons and with different outcomes. Most would agree that the foreign and security policy of the Bush presidency was defined by the signal issue of the war on terrorism. In that respect, Southeast Asia was no different. Indeed, with neoconservative hands firmly on the levers of national power, the Bush administration’s fixation with the war on terrorism focused American energy and resources on maritime Southeast Asia, home to a number of extremist groups (even though many were at the time in fact opportunistic ragtag bandits), especially after the Bali bombings of 2002 and revelations that al Qaeda had attempted to gain a foothold in the region through unholy alliances with these groups. This prioritization of maritime Southeast Asia and tendency toward an issue-focus outlook meant that the region’s mainland states commanded significantly less U.S. attention. In hindsight, the growing influence that China has come to command in regional affairs can arguably be traced to this period, when American inattentiveness to mainland Southeast Asian states like Cambodia and Laos inadvertently offered China greater leverage.

The Obama administration attempted to rectify the narrow focus of the Bush administration with the introduction of the Pivot to Asia. In her important November 2011 article in Foreign Policy magazine, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton heralded the coming of a Pacific Century. This was hardly a hyperbolic declaration. Secretary Clinton’s widely read article, which she carefully titled "America’s Pacific Century, and President Obama’s speech before the Australian Parliament in Canberra that same month together introduced the administration’s Pivot to Asia policy. The Pivot, which has since been rechristened the Rebalance, was meant to be a comprehensive strategy encompassing distinct diplomatic, economic, and military elements, which are collectively aimed at reorienting U.S. grand strategy toward this increasingly vital part of the world. By the advent of the second Obama term, discussions in policy circles both in Washington and in Southeast Asian capitals were talking about a pivot within the Pivot," with Southeast Asia coming to command an even larger share of American resource, focus, and attention.

Yet by the twilight of the Obama administration, assessments of the Pivot found little consensus on its impact and effectiveness. The strategy has been attacked from opposing sides. Some critics say it was too weak: U.S. military deployments were marginal in scale; the legislative fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership looked grim, and indeed was eventually sealed with Donald Trump’s election victory and the Trump presidency’s first executive order that withdrew the U.S. from the trade agreement; and America’s friends and allies in the region wring their hands about the future of Washington’s commitment to their security in the face of growing Chinese expansionism. Conversely, a number of critics claim the Pivot was too strong: the military pillar of the policy overshadowed the diplomatic and economic ones; it promoted recklessness and free riding by U.S. allies; and it unnecessarily exacerbated Sino–American security competition. Needless to say, the Obama administration and its friends in the think tank community insisted that, like Goldilocks’s proverbial porridge, the Pivot was just right: its military and nonmilitary dimensions were in rough balance; the policy successfully walked the fine line of reassuring without emboldening reckless behavior by U.S. allies; and most important, it sent a strong signal of America’s resolve to maintain regional peace and stability while at the same time carefully refraining from ostracizing and antagonizing a rising China. All eyes now are on the Trump administration, which has been bequeathed the levers of national power, and there are questions over where and how it will locate Southeast Asia in terms of American strategic priorities and policy challenges and, correspondingly, how regional states will respond.

Throughout the post–Cold War years of three presidencies covered in this book (circa 1992–2016), a recurring theme in discussions and debates across Southeast Asian capitals on American foreign policy has been that of the need to keep the United States deeply engaged in the region. This theme is often accompanied by the perception that despite frequent expressions of interest and commitment through which different presidential administrations have over the years constantly stressed the importance of Southeast Asia to their wider engagement in the Asia Pacific, regional states continue to harbor apprehensions as to the credibility and sustainability of Washington’s engagement efforts.

Those working on this topic or with professional interest in it would doubtless have noted how the theme of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia has formed the focus of not a few policy reports produced by U.S. and regional think tanks, especially during the Obama administration. Informed (and, sometimes, ill-informed) commentaries and opinion pieces on U.S.–Southeast Asian relations have also frequently appeared in popular broadsheets and social media in recent years. Additionally, there have been several book chapters focused on Southeast Asia in broader compendiums of essays on the theme of the United States and Asia or the Asia Pacific. Despite all the ink expended on the topic at hand—or perhaps because of it—it is puzzling that, aside from Natasha Hamilton-Hart’s fine study, Hard Interests, Soft Illusions: Southeast Asia and American Power, published in 2012, there has been a dearth of recent serious book-length studies of the topic that cast analytical light on abiding themes as well as longer patterns and trends. Informed observers would point out that interest in producing (and supporting) serious scholarship on the United States and Southeast Asia has cooled considerably following the end of the Vietnam War. Clearly, this interest has not picked up as far as book publication is concerned.

It is in the hope of making a small contribution to attempts at redressing this imbalance (not to mention to fulfill my professional obligations as the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution) that I wrote this book. Needless to say, I do not claim that this book is the definitive or final statement on the issue. Indeed, my objectives are far more limited. The book is but an attempt to explore some basic, intuitive questions, often asked by policymakers, especially from the region, but seldom satisfactorily answered, regarding the scope and extent of American engagement. In so doing, I hope to prompt further thinking about the importance of robust commitment to strong U.S.–Southeast Asia ties on the part of all parties concerned, why this has been challenging during the post–Cold War years, and how both parties might meet that challenge to advance their respective interests in a more consistent and strategic fashion not only in form but, more important, in substance, the uncertainties surrounding the foreign policy of the recently inaugurated Trump administration notwithstanding.

There is one final caveat. When this book was completed, the Obama presidency had just come to an end, and Donald Trump was inaugurated as the forty-fifth president of the United States. After a month in office, it remains a challenge to divine elements of a Trump administration grand strategy, let alone of possible policy toward Southeast Asia. Yet, although it may be too early to tell if the Trump administration will buck the trend of engagement with Southeast Asia set by his predecessors (whose administrations and policies form the substance of this book), there are indications that relations between the United States and Southeast Asia for the next few years are likely to be difficult and challenging if President Trump’s statements and tweets are any indication. Even so, rather than be seized by the moment, the purpose of this book is to consider larger themes, patterns, and contexts that shape U.S.–Southeast Asia relations and that will outlast the Trump administration. It is in that spirit that I hope this book will be read.

The Brookings Institution acknowledges Ray and Barbara Dalio, Chevron, Hotel Properties Limited, Keppel Group, Robert Ng and Philip Ng, Sembcorp Industries Ltd., Edwin Soeryadjaya, STEngineering, and The Starr Foundation for their generous contributions to an endowment that established the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies in October 2013 at Brookings. We also thank Blackstone, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and State Street for providing critical initial operating support for the Chair.


THIS BOOK WAS MOSTLY RESEARCHED and authored during my two-year tenure as the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., from August 2014 to July 2016, although my interest in U.S.–Southeast Asia relations extends much further back in time. Needless to say, the two years spent in Washington, D.C., were immensely enriching and rewarding professionally, for they afforded me the opportunity to observe foreign policy decisionmaking in the Beltway at fairly close quarters. The timing was also fortuitous, for, in hindsight, these were very much the halcyon days of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia policy, when conscious efforts were made to focus more attention on Southeast Asia. These two years also provided numerous occasions where I could interact with Washington-based policymakers, think tankers, and scholars with abiding interests in Southeast Asian affairs. In addition to that, as the Brookings go-to person on Southeast Asia, I had frequent opportunities to meet with and discuss U.S.–Southeast Asia relations with a regular stream of scholars and officials from the region who would make their way to Washington for conferences, meetings, and bilateral think tank exchanges. It was the many discussions I had the privilege to partake in throughout the course of these interactions that both prompted and sharpened the thoughts and ideas that frame this book.

I have many people to thank for the honor of serving as the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies at Brookings. Foremost among them is Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, who first alerted me to the creation of the chair, encouraged me to throw my hat in the ring, and made the case to the leadership and governing board of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) to reduce my duties as associate dean and later dean of the school so that I could take up this position. At RSIS, I am indebted to the chair and deputy chair of the governing board, Eddie Teo and Ong Keng Yong, the members of the governing board, as well as my predecessor, Barry Desker, for their strong support. Although understandably reticent at the prospect of having the dean based abroad for two years, they nevertheless managed to look beyond the short-term inconvenience and see the longer term benefits that could be accrued for both the school and for Singapore of having one of their own in this position at Brookings.

At Brookings, I am grateful for the confidence shown in me by Strobe Talbott, Martin Indyk, Ted Piccone, Bruce Jones, and Richard Bush. Richard Bush in particular welcomed me into his team of fine Asia scholars at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, which he very ably led. I would also like to record my gratitude to my colleagues at the Center—my home away from home—for their friendship, help, and collegiality. These include Jonathan Pollack, Kathy Moon, Mireya Solis, Hunter Marston, Paul Park, Jennifer Mason, Maeve Whelan-Wuest, Kevin Scott, and Aileen Chang. Kevin and Aileen in particular were immensely helpful in assisting me and my family as we settled in the United States.

Given the number of meetings, discussions, and chats over coffee, beers, lunches, and dinners involved in the course of researching this book, it would be difficult to single out any among the large number of serving and former officials, whether from the United States or from Southeast Asia, who candidly shared their personal as well as official perspectives on issues related to U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. I would nevertheless like to express special thanks to several in the United States who were especially generous with their time and views: John McCain, Kurt Campbell, Amy Searight, Collin Willett, Vikram Singh, and Stapleton Roy. My old friends Donald Emmerson, Don Horowitz, and Sumit Ganguly were, as usual, always ready and willing to help with ideas on how to approach the topic. Michael Brown, Mike O’Hanlon, Richard Bush, and Hunter Marston read many of the draft chapters and provided useful suggestions on how to sharpen my arguments. A word of thanks is also due the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments and suggestions that have contributed to what is hopefully a stronger book than the one they initially read. At RSIS, numerous discussions with my good colleagues Ang Cheng Guan, Tan See Seng, Ralf Emmers, Bhubhindar Singh, Evan Resnick, and Pascal Vennesson helped refine my ideas and introduce new angles from which to approach my research questions. Wen Yi, Shuo Yan, and Hunter helped considerably with research assistance in Washington, tracking down sources and information, sometimes on obscure events, while Joel Ng compiled the excellent record of congressional bills on Southeast Asia listed in the appendix. Colleagues at Brookings Institution Press, especially Bill Finan and Janet Walker, were immensely professional and helpful in shepherding the publication process through to conclusion.

Time spent apart from family is never easy. Although I was blessed to have my family with me for most of my two years in Washington, because I had to make numerous trips back to Singapore and Southeast Asia both to undertake research and to discharge my duties at RSIS, there were also far too many periods of separation. In light of this, I must place on record my great debt to my lovely wife, Ai Vee, for holding the fort during these absences, and my children, Euan and Megan, for tolerating them. Completing this book no doubt brought an immense sense of satisfaction. But as the Old Book instructs: Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Whatever has been accomplished in this book may have been by my hands, but it is Christ who has guided the effort, and it is to his glory alone.


Ambivalent Engagement?

SOUTHEAST ASIA IS A REGION of considerable economic growth potential. Collectively, the ten states of Southeast Asia possess the third largest workforce behind China and India, command a greater share of global capital flows, are home to a growing middle class and consumer base, and form the world’s fourth largest exporting region. In many respects, this economic potential has been captured in the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), announced in December 2015, envisaged to further enhance the economic connectivity of the region.

But the essence of Southeast Asia as a region is characterized by more than its economic dynamism. Since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in October 1991, which brought about Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and ended the Cold War in Southeast Asia, the region has enjoyed a quarter of a century of relative peace and stability. Although periodic social unrest continues to afflict almost every state in the region—with Thailand arguably the most notable and disconcerting—these have not reached the scale of political violence witnessed over the same period in the Middle East, Central Asia, and many parts of South Asia. Moreover, with the exception of a brief border conflagration between Thailand and Cambodia in 2008, interstate peace has prevailed in Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War. To be sure, mutual mistrust and border disputes between many neighboring regional states still exist, but most important is that they have not given rise to conflicts that can imperil overall regional stability. This fact should not be belittled given that the region was once known in popular parlance as a region in revolt and home to the bloodier of the two hot wars that broke out during the Cold War. If anything, it is a mark of how far the region has come in terms of regional security and stability.

On balance then, the political stability and economic growth that has obtained in Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War ought to render the region of some strategic import to the United States, for Washington would have an interest in preserving this regional stability and partaking in its growth, rather than conceive of its role in the narrow sense of merely a trouble shooter that appears only when a crisis materializes. Indeed, if public speeches offer any indication, the economic dynamism and presumed vast economic potential of Southeast Asia is already frequently acknowledged by the American political leadership and foreign policy decisionmaking community. Added to that are several further reasons why the region should command American policy attention. Southeast Asia encompasses waterways that are crucial to international trade, such as the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea; this, too, is a point that has been recognized by consecutive U.S. administrations, although it has only been more recently that this recognition has found expression in concrete policy action with Washington’s more proactive position on the South China Sea.

For the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Southeast Asia should possess further strategic and policy appeal. The region is home to large Muslim communities—especially in Indonesia and Malaysia—whose theological and political climes offer potential alternative religio-cultural narratives to those that have seized the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. Southeast Asia, too, can claim a legacy of successful democratization processes that stand in stark contrast to the outcome of the Arab Spring. Setting aside the present regression of democracy in Thailand, few would deny that the outcomes of the People’s Revolution in the Philippines, Reformasi in Indonesia, and, now, the self-initiated withdrawal of the military from politics that is taking place in Myanmar compare favorably to the failed revolutions in Egypt and Libya. These trends speak to the twin themes of democratization and U.S. relations with Muslim societies, which remain signal foreign policy priorities for the United States. There is another less sanguine but no less important strategic character to the region that punctuates consideration of its significance to the United States: it has become increasingly evident in recent years that there is a picture gradually unfolding of Southeast Asia becoming a key arena for Sino–U.S. strategic rivalry and economic competition. Indeed, the point can plausibly be argued that in Southeast Asia today we are witnessing the first signs of a brewing strategic rivalry that will shape global politics in the twenty-first century.

Although the above observations may provide some compelling reasons why Southeast Asia should command considerable attention in American strategic thinking and foreign policymaking, the question that this begs is: does it?

On the face of it, several observations can be offered in response to this question. First, Southeast Asia, as those more reticent toward an American role in the region frequently remind us, is in Washington policy discourse usually wrapped up in conversations on broader concepts of the Pacific, the Asia Pacific, East Asia, or even East Asian littoral running from the Sea of Japan to the Bay of Bengal, as described in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. The portents of this nomenclature should be self-evident—priority tends to still be rendered to American allies in Japan and South Korea, security commitments to Taiwan, and growing interest in India, as compared with Southeast Asia. Indeed, even South Asia appears to command comparatively more attention with its long history of animosity between India and Pakistan, not to mention the threat of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and chronic instability in Pakistan. In short, American strategic thinking tends to treat Southeast Asia as an extension of a wider geostrategic footprint rather than as a region with its own inherent strategic significance and logic. As one official who served in the Bush and Obama administrations admitted: It is difficult to focus exclusively on Southeast Asia as an area of strategic priority, although the situation has improved over the last eight years (namely, during the Obama administration).¹

Second, if Southeast Asia has featured at all in post–Cold War policy discussions and debate swirling in Washington, D.C., circles, it has for the most part been dominated by specific policy themes: either human rights and democratization (during the Clinton administration), counterterrorism (during the Bush administration), or, increasingly, the South China Sea (during the Obama administration). In other words, the United States has largely been either neglectful or narrow—or both—in its thinking about Southeast Asia.

Finally, this state of affairs belies the fact that there is much at stake for the United States, as suggested above, in terms of what Southeast Asia has to offer, how regional affairs in Southeast Asia unfold, and where the region fits in broader U.S. grand strategy in the coming years. To the extent that Asia and the Pacific will feature more prominently for American strategic interests, the inescapable reality is that the relationship between the United States and Southeast Asia must be a key element of future policy: for the United States, for Southeast Asia, for U.S.–Asia relations in general, and for the stability of the Asia Pacific region.


Notwithstanding the fact that regional economies (sans Japan) have generally been trending upward at laudable growth rates in the past two decades since the end of the Cold War (discounting the period of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, of course), and regional institutions have proliferated, drivers of instability, insecurity, and potential conflict remain. Several flashpoints can easily be identified, where unresolved issues of border demarcation, irredentism, and territorial disputes can easily spill over to conflict if not managed properly.

A major consideration that frames the investigation of U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia undertaken in this book is the fact that the geostrategic patterns and logics in East Asia have been in transition since the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States remains the preeminent regional security actor, freed from the inhibitions of having to deal with a global rival with hostile intentions. Even so, few would suggest that regional stability today relies solely on the United States the way it arguably did during the Cold War (at least for noncommunist Southeast Asia until American withdrawal from Vietnam). Certainly, the financial crisis that beset the United States in 2008 not only significantly tempered talk of American power, it in fact prompted discomfiting murmurs of American decline.

For East Asia, the unipolar moment very quickly transmogrified into a more uncertain world as putative regional powers and competitors began asserting themselves, with China very much at the head of the pack. Concomitantly, regional order has come to bear some hallmarks of complex multipolarity where economic interdependence sits uncomfortably with strategic rivalry. Indeed, if the logic obtains that power transitions are inherently destabilizing, then it stands to reason that multiple vectors of power transitions taking place at the same time and within the same geopolitical footprint can only further sharpen anxieties. Needless to say, of paramount consequence to this shifting geostrategic logic is the advent of a new regional power (with global potential, it should be added) in the form of a China that is exuding hegemonic tendencies. Indeed, a recurring theme through much of this book will be the matter of growing Chinese influence assiduously taking place during periods when American engagement of the region is distracted by other considerations or myopically focused on specific issues. More on this will follow in the ensuing chapters. Suffice to say for now that it is already received wisdom that China’s economic growth over the last two decades has translated to political and strategic influence—which it has brought to bear on its relations with Southeast Asian states—and it is poised to fundamentally transform the distribution of power and balance of influence in the region.

Turning to the small and medium-sized states of Southeast Asia, beneficiaries of the economic rise of the greater East Asian region but also inherently vulnerable to its geopolitical shifts, this state of affairs poses interesting, and potentially grave, security challenges and implications. All the more so as Southeast Asia is situated geographically at the intersection of these competing forces. In retrospect, these circumstances are, at least to some extent, not entirely new. Alert to the pitfalls of centrifugal pulls as well as the danger of external power intervention as early as the late 1960s in the wake of decolonization and at the height of the Cold War, efforts were made to grasp the nettle by stressing the neutrality of the region. These efforts culminated in the futile declaration of Southeast Asia’s aspiration to be recognized as a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), freed from external power interference, in 1971. Somewhat similar great power dynamics obtain today, although, as this discussion will later demonstrate, the response of regional states has been to enmesh, rather than exclude, major powers in a regional order centered on ASEAN.²

In the face of the element of unpredictability and strategic uncertainty occasioned by competitive and potentially adversarial relationships among otherwise interdependent major powers, the Southeast Asian gaze remains transfixed on the United States to contribute to stability as an active and committed actor in regional affairs, perforce, on grounds that it has historically been a benign, stabilizing force in the region.³ The late Lee Kuan Yew, one of the staunchest Southeast Asian supporters of the U.S. presence in the region, offered the following insight to accent the import of American engagement:

Why should the United States stay engaged to help East Asia’s combined gross national product to exceed that of North America? Why not disengage and abort this process? Because this process is not easily aborted. No alternative balance can be as comfortable as the present one, with the United States as a major player. The geopolitical balance without the United States as a principal force will be very different from that which it now is or can be if the United States remains a central player. My generation of Asians, which experienced the last war, its horrors and miseries, and which remembers the U.S. role in the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of that war to prosperity of Japan, the newly industrializing economies, and ASEAN will feel a keen sense of regret that the world will become so vastly different because the United States becomes a less central player in the new balance.

Reinforcing sentiments toward the role that Southeast Asian states have ascribed to the United States in regional affairs, especially on security issues, Truong Tan Sang, the conservative Vietnamese president, opined on the occasion of his visit to Washington that the United States had an important role and responsibility in dealing with hotspots in the region such as the South China Sea and such global issues as energy security, food security, transnational crime, climate change, and so on. This has become ever more imperative.⁵ Needless to say, coming from Vietnam, such a view is all the more significant for obvious reasons.

Notwithstanding the generally positive reception that the United States receives in the region today, an element of ambiguity and ambivalence nevertheless obtains in regard to how the U.S. role is perceived by and received in Southeast Asia. Indeed, it is hardly axiomatic that expectations for the United States to express commitment to regional order betray any intent on the part of Southeast Asia to align strategically with Washington or to offer blanket support for any and all displays of American presence and interest in the region. On the contrary, even as Southeast Asian states articulate a desire for the United States to enhance its engagement, not a few have also made clear, in subtle but sometimes also not-so-subtle ways, their intention to retain more than a modicum of national and regional autonomy. This is evident, for instance, in the constant refrain across the region of decisionmakers not wanting to be in a position where they are forced to choose sides in relation to the United States and China. At the same time, given the role that Southeast Asia is prepared to accord to the United States, this also begs the question of whether, and how, regional expectations dovetail with American strategic interests and objectives, and the degree to which Southeast Asia demonstrates a collective will in their reception of American intent in the region. This question will be pursued in greater detail in the next chapter.

A word must be said about the factor of geography. An evident feature of enduring significance that informs the strategy of any given power must surely be political geography. Geographical forces influence human and state behavior in predictable ways and, as some have argued, provide a compelling explanation for the economic and political power that some states wield.⁶ Geography, as the historical record attests, has also been one of the most rampant causes of wars between states. For its part, the factor of geography plays a crucial role in influencing strategic thinking and strategic culture as well. As Colin Gray noted, national strategic culture is very much the product of geographical conditioning.

For the United States, the factor of geography has historically had a significant impact on the shaping of grand strategy and application of national power. Its

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