March 16, 2016

CNAS Experts Discuss U.S. Southeast Asian Policy Under President Obama and his Successor


Washington, March 16 – Early last week, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program hosted the inaugural session of the Derwin Pereira Southeast Asian Foreign Policy Roundtables. This session took stock of the recent Sunnylands Summit, President Obama’s future travel to Laos and Southeast Asia, and U.S.-Southeast Asian relations in the final year of the Obama administration.

Below, please find a summary of the event, including speakers, major discussion points, and points of agreement:

Attendees at the inaugural meeting of the Derwin Pereira Southeast Asian Foreign Policy Roundtables engaged in a bipartisan assessment of the future of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations and policy as we approach a new administration next year. The session, introduced by CNAS President Richard Fontaine and moderated by CNAS Asia-Pacific Security Program Senior Director Dr. Patrick M. Cronin, featured as panelists 

  1. Daniel Kritenbrink, Senior Director for Asian Affairs, National Security Council Staff

  2. The Honorable Dr. Kurt M. Campbell, Chairman of the CNAS Board of Directors and CEO of The Asia Group

  3. Professor Donald K. Emmerson, Director of Southeast Asia Program with the Shornstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University

  4. Walter Lohman, Director of the Asia Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation

  5. Dr. Melanie Hart, Senior Fellow and Director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress

Daniel Kritenbrink opened by highlighting the Obama administration’s achievements in the region, reviewing the successful U.S.-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands and offering a vision for the year ahead in Southeast Asia. Mr. Kritenbrink organized the White House’s initiatives toward the region into four lines of effort: 1) strengthening and networking relationships in the region, 2) promoting economic prosperity, 3) maintaining and strengthening a rules-based order, and 4) promoting cooperation on global challenges.

Mr. Kritenbrink reviewed notable examples of collaboration by the United States and its ASEAN partners along each of these lines of effort. These included major improvements to Philippine maritime capacity, deepening partnerships with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, expanding defense ties where there was previously a paucity thereof, bolstering intra-ASEAN institutional structures, and fostering people-to-people ties across the region. Mr. Kritenbrink pointed to climate change, human and narcotics trafficking, and counter-terrorism as important global issues with opportunities for future cooperation.

The Sunnylands summit, Mr. Kritenbrink said, served as a recognition of how far intra-ASEAN relationships had grown and how much U.S.-ASEAN ties had strengthened. The summit represented a shared vision among the participants and its host for a region committed to prosperity, a rules-based order, respect for international law and the freedom of navigation, and non-militarization of the region (particularly with respect to the South China Sea). Mr. Kritenbrink said the coming year would only further underline U.S. commitment to the region and realize dividends from previous investment there—including landmark visits by President Obama to Vietnam and Laos.

The Honorable Dr. Kurt Campbell framed the challenges facing the region and U.S. engagement there, as well as what he saw as the path forward for U.S. policymakers.

Dr. Campbell outlined three mounting sources of anxiety for actors in ASEAN and across the region. The first source he pointed to was the bifurcated roles played by China—on the one hand, a rising power practicing aggressive forms of coercion across a variety of domains, and on the other hand, a benefactor providing surprisingly generous support for infrastructure and other projects. Second, many ASEAN actors are anxious about the United States and its own political system. While U.S. policymakers have preached democratic transition, political openness, and societal pluralism, U.S. domestic dysfunction has tempered the reach of its message. Third, Dr. Campbell spoke of anxiety about the state of intra-ASEAN relationships. Dr. Campbell has been told that ASEAN meetings and events used to be marked by carefully choreographed, formal conversations emphasizing consensus, and that they are becoming increasingly frank and freewheeling. Though Dr. Campbell argued this was a source of strength in the relationships, they did not provide a sense of stability ahead of the region’s expected political transitions this year.

Dr. Campbell argued that, going forward, U.S. policymakers will need to strengthen the institutional underpinnings of the rebalance and provide sources of reassurance to ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific. First, the U.S. government should issue institutionalized engagement “scorecards” and other metrics to guide senior leaders so that the Asia-Pacific gets adequate attention, even as crises direct them to other regions. Second, the United States needs to provide reassurance about the state of its political system and its polity’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific—and a major domestic speech by the new president may be a good start. Third, Dr. Campbell outlined the need for renewed bipartisan consensus on foreign affairs to sustain internationalist outreach against the headwinds exerted by the outer wings of each party.  

Professor Donald Emmerson posited that a U.S. focus on the South China Sea could in itself constitute an over-focus, potentially distorting U.S. priorities in the region and reducing progress on separate issues. He also worried that the United States needed to distinguish between two different concerns with regard to Chinese behavior in the Asia-Pacific—that of escalation and that of expansion. The issue of escalation—that tensions may rise to a level disrupting regular politics and commerce, perhaps at a rate that would be uncontrollable—is an acute one. Yet Professor Emmerson also pointed to the long-term concern of expansion as perhaps more deterministic. Geography is not changing, he reported colleagues from the region telling him, and trends toward Chinese influence, perhaps even domination, may be inexorable.

Dr. Melanie Hart and Mr. Walter Lohman discussed how the United States should proceed to engage most effectively in the region Dr. Hart reiterated the importance of avoiding distortion, emphasizing the importance of an affirmative vision for the region that was not zero-sum. Pointing to the perception among Southeast Asian states that U.S.-China relations were expressly concerned with the South China Sea, Dr. Hart argued that U.S. policymakers needed to develop and more clearly communicate that grander, more affirmative vision to both our partners and China. Mr. Lohman agreed that many challenges facing the United States in Asia emanated from Washington, but countered that the lack of adequate defense funding had reduced U.S. claims to a credible deterrent, and with it, the regional credibility lent by hard power. He also suggested that a more conservative U.S. administration would likely need to see a reemphasis of bilateral relationships and initiatives rather than ASEAN-wide efforts, but that the multilateral approach toward commerce in TPP remained compelling.


Cronin and Fontaine are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or call 202-457-9409.