Often overshadowed by discussions of the strategic importance of Northeast Asia, rapid changes in Southeast Asia will play an increasingly important role in the security of the region. Southeast Asia is the third largest export market for the United States, is home to one of Asia’s most successful regional organizations – ASEAN – and contains some of the world’s most important sea lines of communication. Meanwhile, the rise of China and India has turned the South China Sea into a theatre of competition that touches upon the United States’ ability to ensure the freedom of the global commons in coming decades. Inequality among Southeast Asian nations, transnational threats, abundant resources, fledgling democracies, religious and ethnic tensions and an unpopular military junta in Burma further complicate dynamics in the region.
Yet, strategic shortsightedness still animates American policy in the region, which sees treaty partners Japan, South Korea and Australia as the main pillars of Washington’s engagement in Asia. In spite of trends that are bringing Southeast Asia closer to every challenge and opportunity related to the rise of Asia, nowhere in the region is there more of an absence of U.S. leadership. And the overwhelmingly positive response to the U.S. assistance and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami shows that there is a strong desire for the right type of American leadership in the region.
Critical to the United States’ long-term success in Southeast Asia and Asia more broadly will be its ability to leverage the strength of its existing relationships and form new enduring partnerships. One relationship in particular, between the United States and regional democratic power Indonesia, represents a critical opportunity for America to enhance its strategic engagement and influence in Southeast Asia. In particular, much speculation exists about President Obama’s desire to upgrade U.S.-Indonesia relations to a formal “strategic partnership.” Unfortunately, these views are based more on anecdotes that over-dramatize President Obama’s early childhood experiences in Indonesia than on defined interests. American strategists and senior policymakers lack a clear vision for the relationship or a pragmatic roadmap to shape and implement a more strategic partnership. To fill this gap, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conducted a project on the way forward for a U.S.-Indonesia partnership that produced the report, “Crafting a Strategic Vision: A New Era of U.S.-Indonesia Relations.”
CNAS is also engaged in the issue of the global commons as it relates to Southeast Asia. The South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca are critical economic and strategic passageways. CNAS’s project on Asia will continue to hold dialogues with key stakeholders in the region on ensuring American interests in the area, including the freedom of the global commons.