The transformation of U.S.–Southeast Asian relations is the least heralded and yet most forward-looking element of President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia.
At the upcoming Sunnylands summit, the president will host for the first time on American soil a gathering with all 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN straddles the global economy’s most crucial waterway, the South China Sea, and is America’s fourth-largest trading partner. But more than this, the nearly half-century-old institution represents the best hope for future collective action in a vital region where the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, economic growth, and moderate Islam are all under assault.
Capstone of the Rebalance Policy
President Obama’s pivot to Asia was a declaration of American will and power to prevent the Indo-Pacific from coming under the exclusive sway of an expansionist power. The geographical focus of the rebalance ranges from Australia in the east to India in the west. This gigantic swathe of strategic territory includes America's Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. It stretches to India, the countervailing rise of which is already challenging an assertive China.
Southeast Asia is the crucial link in the Indo-Pacific chain. The region's position south of China and east of India, whence it derives its name, makes it a buffer between the two Asian giants. How it tilts – or does not tilt – toward the United States will help determine the degree of American leverage vis-à-vis China.
This mutual dependence between America and ASEAN should set the tone for discussions at Sunnylands. Rather than concede to the narrative that the United States provides only regional security goods (while China provides regional economic goods), President Obama should underscore the growing convergence of U.S.-ASEAN security and economic interests.
The dependence is cast in sharp relief by the state of U.S.–Southeast Asian relations when President Obama entered the White House. The global economic crisis, centered in the United States, called its capacity for international leadership into question. The crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, signaled the apparent end of Pax Americana: America's ability to keep the peace around the globe. The obvious analogy was with the Depression. It had heralded the undermining of Pax Europa by a revisionist Germany that ignited a world war for the second time in just over two decades.
There were fears in Asia over America's coming demise as the preponderant global power. Could it unleash a comparable chain of events? An America unable to manage its domestic finances hardly was capable of underwriting the fate of nations elsewhere. The status quo threatened to unravel. The times seemed to belong to revisionist powers.
Southeast Asia, colonized by European powers, had suffered grievously during World War II. Japan filled the imperial vacuum created by the breakdown of Pax Europa. The region watched apprehensively as a repeat appeared possible with the passage of Pax Americana. Would China be the new Japan? The question was no longer an improbable one.
Yet, nothing of the sort occurred. America recovered its economic vitality. Its military prestige remained untarnished in spite of expensive wars and inconclusive nation-building in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. It continued to engage China from a position of global strength. Southeast Asian countries were relieved. Clearly, the United States was not an imperial power in terminal overreach: It was a global power laying down the terms of engagement for aspiring great powers, which included China.
As the Obama presidency draws to a close, it is this record of economic and strategic survival as a world power that the United States will bring to the table at Sunnylands. The beneficiaries will be the small- and medium-sized countries of ASEAN. Their prospects depend on the economic and strategic autonomy of the wider Indo-Pacific region.
Looking to the future, President Obama has acknowledged that desire for autonomy in ASEAN. He has elevated the group’s standing in America's global hierarchy of interests by inviting its leaders to Sunnylands. The 2013 Rancho Mirage retreat there was the venue of an informal meeting between the American leader and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. As ASEAN leaders gather there, the message to the Chinese is simple. Although the Sino–U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral one in the world, it does not prevent America from cultivating alternative centers of influence.
China's military maneuvers in the South China Sea have worried ASEAN collectively and directly involved one of its members, the Philippines. The United States and ASEAN need to be prepared to send a unified message about the global importance of freedom of the seas the moment after an international tribunal hands down its judgment about Manila’s legal challenge to China’s nine-dash-line claim to the South China Sea. Sunnylands will tell China that America takes international freedom of navigation and the rule of law seriously, even though the United States is not a claimant state in the maritime dispute. Beijing cannot deal with Southeast Asia without factoring in the American response.
Economics and Religion
China's military rise will not be the only issue at Sunnylands. Other common stakes for the United States and ASEAN are the global agency of the American economic model and the capacity of states to stop the spread of militant Islam.
That economic model is embodied in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is an ambitious effort to write the rules of global trade at a time of economic fragmentation. This is seen in the plethora of bilateral or regional free-trade agreements that seek to fill the space created by the absence of a unified global trading regime. The U.S.-led, 12-nation TPP includes four Southeast Asian economies: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Brunei is an oil-rich country. Malaysia has prospered by adopting an export-led strategy of economic growth. That strategy is synonymous with the free-trade policies of resource-poor Singapore. Vietnam's embrace of the capitalist mode of development replicates the economic basis of China's phenomenal growth.
Sunnylands will provide President Obama an opportunity to showcase the TPP's benefits to other Southeast Asian nations. Indeed, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have expressed interest in joining it. The American outreach will be important especially because China has moved quickly to expand its own economic sphere. This is through the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is seen as a rival to a U.S.-dominated system embodied by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. In spite of American pressure on countries to not join the China-led bank, all ASEAN members have done so.
The United States must make ASEAN a centerpiece of its efforts to regain the global economic initiative from China. Meanwhile, President Obama should remind the American people why growing trade with ASEAN, which already accounts for nearly half a million jobs in America, helps Main Street and not just Wall Street.
The stakes are even higher in the war on terror. That war never ended, particularly in Southeast Asia. There, the declining threat from the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah has been followed by the appearance of militants who pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Indonesia (the scene of a recent terror attack in the capital, Jakarta), Malaysia, Singapore, and the southern Philippines are within the sights of ISIS. It seeks to establish a distant Caliphate in Southeast Asia.
The United States cannot end major terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia: Regional countries will have to do this themselves. However, these countries would find it difficult to prevail without American leadership in the global fight against terror. Sunnylands could lead to the refinement of a common strategy against the terrorist scourge.
Even as America awaits a new president, the summit should set the tone and tempo of future deliberations between the United States and ASEAN. Beyond its symbolic value, Sunnylands illuminates the pathway to effective and durable institution building in the Indo-Pacific region. It is this promise of region-wide order and rules—and not just relations with any single country—that should mark Obama’s legacy for the next administration.
Cronin and Pereira are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-457-9409.