The Obama Administration's Love Affair With Southeast Asia

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The U.S. is making a diplomatic push into China's backyard.

REAL hilary clinton.jpgReuters

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to receive a warm welcome in a new series of high-level visits to Southeast Asian states and regional bodies this week. From Vietnam, where she is signing agreements on education and business today, to tomorrow's meeting in Cambodia of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], Clinton will continue the Obama administration's intensified diplomacy in a neighborhood where China has been the dominant influence.

The Obama administration has made a clear choice to re-engage with the countries of Southeast Asia during the past three years, primarily on the Southeast Asians' terms. Recognizing that Southeast Asian economic integration, and Asian integration overall, is proceeding with or without the United States, the administration has chosen to try to play a more central role in this process to avoid integration being dominated by China. This follows a period during the Bush administration in which ASEAN and its partners inked free trade deals with China, launched a free trade area within ASEAN, and made progress toward trade deals with Japan, India, and other actors. With the WTO round stalled and the West lurching into economic meltdown in 2008, the focus of trade progress shifted to East Asia, with ASEAN at the center.

The White House has vowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Though actually joining is a long shot, given the difficulty of passing trade deals in Congress, it has significantly increased its assistance to the countries of the Mekong River basin in mainland Southeast Asia, and it has appointed an ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. This demonstrates to Southeast Asian nations that the United States places the same type of priority on its relationship with them as it does with other important regional actors like South Korea or India.

What's more, U.S. officials increasingly have been "showing up" in Southeast Asia for important meetings and summits, giving the region the face time that it so desperately craves. The fact that Clinton and other top officials have repeatedly traveled to the region also has helped demonstrate Washington's commitment to its treaty allies and partners in the region (like Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore) who have been challenged by the dispute over the South China Sea. To a large extent, this strategy has worked, in part because it also has coincided with increasingly aggressive diplomacy in the region by China, which has seriously alienated many countries in the region.

Yet while many nations have welcomed the renewed U.S. interest in the region, ASEAN remains divided about how to handle both the United States and China, and how to enunciate a vision for future Asian integration that will accommodate both major powers. Still operating by its traditional consensus mindset, ASEAN has found it difficult to find unity on the most pressing issues facing its members, such as the dispute over the South China Sea, which is why members like the Philippines and Vietnam have turned to the United States for greater support (and arms).

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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