May 20, 2016

Sustaining the Rebalance in Southeast Asia

Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Next Administration

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

Southeast Asia’s global rise illustrates its promise and its pitfalls. As with growing global interdependence, there are pluses and minuses that President Barack Obama’s successor will have to assess when setting policies for a region of 625 million people who collectively constitute America’s fourth-largest trading partner. 

U.S. policy during the Obama administration has sought to build up relations with Southeast Asia as part of a rebalance to the wider Indo-Pacific region. Southeast Asia, in fact, was quickly dubbed as the “rebalance within the rebalance,” reflecting the fact that the United States already was heavily vested in engaging Northeast Asia. Overall, the White House has described its policy as attempting to construct a web of like-minded states committed to promoting economic prosperity, cooperation on common challenges, and a rules-based order. 

The proverbial low-hanging fruit of the rebalance has been partly harvested. President Obama opened relations with Burma, elevated relations with Vietnam, and forged a new strategic partnership with Indonesia. He also managed to conclude an upgrade in relations with the Philippines in the form of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the subsequent selection of multiple bases through which U.S. forces would rotate and gain access.1 Finally, President Obama achieved a new relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including hosting all 10 Southeast Asian leaders at a February summit in California.

Will the next administration be as successful at seizing further opportunities while avoiding emerging challenges in Southeast Asia? Specifically, will Obama’s successor be willing and able to sustain the rebalance, a multifaceted and comprehensive approach to increasing economic, diplomatic, and security engagement? More generally, will the next U.S. administration achieve a larger global and regional balance of power that enables and supports continued equilibrium within Southeast Asia and provides smaller powers with more breathing room? What will be the major opportunities and challenges?  

As China and other powers vie to expand their influence in Southeast Asia, only a comprehensive approach blending soft and hard power is likely to support U.S. interests and relations in the region.

This policy brief suggests there are five clusters of issues that will test the next administration’s commitment and ability to seize more opportunities and avoid the biggest potential hurdles. As China and other powers vie to expand their influence in Southeast Asia, only a comprehensive approach blending soft and hard power is likely to support U.S. interests and relations in the region.

This brief explores five issue areas: trade and sustainable economic development; maritime security; diplomatic engagement and regional architecture building; democracy and human rights; and countering terrorism, political violence, and transnational crime. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does capture most of the salient issues likely to drive U.S. policy over the next decade. From these issue areas one can highlight a number of key questions that will have to be answered by the next president of the United States if relations with Southeast Asia are to continue to make progress across economic, political, and security areas. Before dissecting each group of issues, however, let us first characterize the general situation that President Obama’s successor is likely to inherit for the next four or eight years.

First 100 Days Agenda

Asia is all about the long game. However, the United States will be judged on a daily basis for its commitment, capability, and intentions. A new administration should immediately signal its intent to remain deeply engaged with Southeast Asia, while simultaneously putting down markers that show durability and strength. The new president should pursue this five-point agenda within the first 100 days in office.

Deliver a major speech in the United States on the importance of Asia. Although President Barack Obama often spoke of the importance of Asia while in the region, there was far too little discourse and understanding about its strategic and economic importance in the United States. A new president can at once capitalize on the successful elements of the rebalance policy, underline new areas of emphasis or direction, and convey a vision of renewed American prosperity that must flow through Asia’s rising markets. Among other things, the president should announce the second and third recommendations of this five-point agenda: namely, the effort to craft a regional strategy within the year and accelerated construction of a transparency regime in the South China Sea.
Direct the National Security Advisor to coordinate an interagency strategy for the Indo-Pacific region in which relations with Southeast Asia are accorded an increasingly prominent position commensurate with its rising importance. The Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia constituted a strategic course correction for U.S. foreign policy. Yet the policy never achieved high-level clarity and coherence, in no small measure because of the absence of an authoritative and singular public strategic document. The new administration should not let this languish, but instead move smartly to complete this badly needed strategic blueprint for the Indo-Pacific region in time for the new president to deliver foundational speeches in Asia, including in the Philippines during its 2017 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


Set a new, accelerated timetable for constructing a common operating picture in and around the South China Sea. The new administration should double down on creating a transparency regime as a regional public good, on the one hand, and a key element for early warning and contingency response, on the other. Specific hubs and partners should be given priority based on their strategic importance and level of cooperation. For instance, the president should visit Clark Air Base or one of the other Philippine bases, newly available to the United States under a 10-year access arrangement, that support maritime domain awareness for humanitarian disaster response and other purposes. Shared situational awareness remains the least controversial and most achievable region-wide goal that serves a multitude of objectives, from better response to natural disasters to illuminating coercive action in disputed waters. While the administration should accelerate the basic construction of a common operating picture, it should at the same time make clear its long-term determination to support further security capacity building for Southeast Asian countries. Among other steps, for instance, the new administration should announce its intention to upgrade the five-year Maritime Security Initiative, both with respect to the level of effort and duration.
Announce an interagency review of the strategically vital Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact to determine how to implement and expand it, while addressing legitimate domestic concerns about the unintended consequences of global trade. While the TPP already includes four Southeast Asian countries, the new administration should announce that it is opening up discussions with other regional actors, including Indonesia and the Philippines in Southeast Asia, as well as other actors such as South Korea and Taiwan. Meanwhile, the review should recommend actionable policies for compensating potential adverse consequences on some business sectors and members of the work force, to ensure that the United States benefits from global trade without leaving other Americans behind.
Task the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Development Corporation, and other parts of the interagency to develop a new initiative aimed at developing human capital to address 21st-century challenges. The initiative should be driven by education, science, and technology, and focus more on building human capacity rather than infrastructure. This soft-power initiative should leverage the efforts of others and thus be open to working in tandem with other countries but also in public-private partnerships with business and civil society. An interagency review should identify priority areas and best practices for achieving cost-effective impact. To kick-start the process, the new president could fast-track legislation for education and exchange programs with key Southeast Asian nations.

Seven Key Recommendations for the Next Administration

While future CNAS policy briefs will explore these recommendations in greater depth, there are seven crucial high-level goals the next president should pursue in Southeast Asia.

Advance trade, investment, and economic development with America’s fourth-largest trading partner: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is critical to regional strategic engagement and setting the rules for the Asia-Pacific’s future development. While the TPP requires additional remedies for some workers and industries at home, the failure to bring the TPP to full fruition would quickly be apparent to Southeast Asia, particularly after the likely completion of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The United States should not neglect the need to help the poorest Southeast Asian nations, which could benefit the most from relatively modest educational exchanges and assistance.

Military Expenditure in Southeast Asia, 2015

SIPRI Military Expenditure Database

Ensure adequate resourcing for the rebalance to Asia’s security dimensions: The next administration will need to ensure adequate financing and human capital for greater force presence, robust partnership capacity building, and meaningful maritime security confidence-building measures with the region to dampen the prospects of inadvertent conflict.  

Fashion a coherent maritime strategy: The United States needs both a useful response to Chinese assertiveness and to genuinely reflect a regional wish for America’s steady offshore presence. The next administration will need to fashion a strategy to do so – a key aspect of which will include constructing a common operating picture in the South China Sea to allow for transparency and information sharing across a spectrum of contingencies, as a cornerstone of partnership capacity building. Capable states such as Vietnam might become able co-producers of maritime and air defense equipment.

Maintain active engagement: President Obama has raised the bar on comprehensive engagement as the price of admission in working closely with Southeast Asia. The next administration will need at least to keep up with this more active pace of high-level meetings and engagement throughout the region. Using top-level meetings to set the agenda will be essential to ensuring that priority issues are addressed.

Balance U.S.-China policy with more active engagement in Southeast Asia: The next president will need to lead a policymaking apparatus worried less about losing ground to rising powers and instead more concerned with achieving an overall balance of power while building an inclusive, rules-based, comprehensive architecture. Imposing costs on bad behavior is needed, but the daily focus should concentrate on building a positive agenda.

Keep democracy and human rights on the agenda: Tightening comprehensive engagement with the region is necessary despite numerous and often major governance concerns. Through the implementation of well-designed, reform-minded, and nuanced exchange initiatives, the next administration can pursue U.S. values and interests at the same time.

Strengthen counterterrorism cooperation: The United States must expand and sustain effective support for intelligence cooperation and counterterrorism capacity among its regional partners. The next administration also will need to bolster local diplomatic and development efforts that counter radical narratives and deny misgoverned spaces throughout Southeast Asia, despite the likelihood of periodic instances of deadly political violence and terrorism.

At the time of writing this report in the spring of 2016, it would appear that the next occupant of the White House will have many opportunities and arguably more risks than President Obama confronted. Overall, however, the United States will be measured for its effective engagement, however nuanced, rather than a heavy-handed attempt to lay down the law or simply engagement for its own sake.

The full report is available online.

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  • Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

    Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the Senior ...

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