Document Type : Original Article
Associate Professor of Political Geography, Kharazmi University, Tehran, Iran
Associate Professor of International Relations, Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies, Tehran, Iran
MA of Political Geography, Kharazmi University, Tehran, Iran
Southeast Asia deserves more sustained attention from American policymakers than it has received in the recent past, according to the independent Task Force report. It argues that Southeast Asia has a long history of important security and economic ties with the United States and is of strategic interest. Yet the United States has benignly neglected the area and its needs and growth potential for almost two decades. With the economic crisis in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the late 1990s, the reestablishment of U.S. diplomatic ties with Vietnam, and the recent ethnic strife and devolution in Indonesia, the region and its member nations are back on the international skyline. The shortsightedness of recent U.S. policy toward the region, the report states, is troublesome because of the region’s importance to U.S. national interests: with a population of 525 million and an annual gross national product of $700 billion, Southeast Asia has become America’s fifth-largest trading partner; it is home to several emerging democracies. Today, the region is more volatile than at any time since the Vietnam War. In several nations, especially Indonesia and the Philippines, the aftershocks from the economic crisis and rising political turmoil continue to make for fractious polities, fragile economies, and a loss of investor confidence. The report recommends that the United States maintain regional security by preserving a credible military presence and a viable regional training and support structure. That, according to the Task Force, will help prevent both intraregional conflict and domination by outside powers. The report also devotes particular attention to U.S. relations with Indonesia. The Task Force says that helping to foster economic and political reform in Indonesia—now in the “throes of social, political, and economic instability”—would have important implications in the region and the world. Indonesia, the Task Force notes, is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the fulcrum of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and has the world’s largest Muslim community. It is also a major oil exporter and the only Asian member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The research is basic in terms of its goal, and casual and descriptive- analytic in terms of method and nature. Data gathering procedure is based on library findings.
Result and discussion
The United States strategic blunders in South West Asia at the turn of the 21st Century have not led to any strategic gains to reinforce the United States image and standing in South West Asia. The United States can be said to have lost heavily in strategic terms when viewed against the fact that its military distractions in Afghanistan and Iraq led it to be militarily oblivious to the security of the Asia Pacific and East Asia in particular. The strategic vacuum caused by US inattentiveness led China to exploit this vacuum by an unrestrained and fast-track military rise for over a decade. The recent United States strategic pivot to Asia Pacific is a belated effort to reverse the above trend and win back South East Asian nations unnerved by China’s aggression in the South China Sea and East China Sea areas. On balance it can be stated that the United States strategic blunders in South West Asia have cost it heavily not only in South West Asia but also in Asia Pacific. In strategic terms it will take years for the United States to regain its strategic balance. How should the next U.S. president exercise strategic leadership in East Asia?
First, with good reason for fundamental optimism – because there remains very significant regional demand for U.S. leadership in East Asia.
Second, with empathy for allies and supporter states. It is crucial for the next U.S. president to recognize that, unlike the United States, East Asian states have to live permanently in China’s shadow. Very few regional leaders will choose – or be able to stick with – policies that actively antagonize China. This is because their relationships with China stretch beyond maritime disputes to encompass economic and security interdependence. In this context, U.S. strategic leadership means enabling these states to keep supporting U.S. leadership without forcing them to make zero-sum choices vis-à-vis China.
Third, with resolve towards China. This resolve can cut two ways. The new president can choose to play hardball, upholding U.S. interests and principles clearly and firmly and responding in kind to Chinese assertiveness. This may work: Chinese leaders may continue to be deterred by the specter of a potential military conflict with the U.S. that they might not be able to win. But I would recommend applying resolve in a different way: Persuade China to become the world’s most important supporter of a regional and global order that the U.S. wants to uphold. This is a more difficult enterprise because it will involve a change of mindset in Washington, from the current take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards some negotiation with China about reforms it wants to see and the role it wants to play in the international order.
The U.S new administration will try to consider initiating a workable framework for cooperation with China in key regional maritime issues, such as navigational safety, zones. It seems to me that the only viable short- to medium-term means of managing the South China Sea disputes is the tried and tested one of China and the other rival claimants agreeing to put aside the territorial disputes, possibly in favor of selected projects of joint resources protection, exploration and development. While these agreements will not directly involve the U.S., which is a non-claimant, Washington can lead in creating more propitious “weather conditions” for such an outcome, by shifting the current dynamic away from the deadlock over international arbitration and freedom of navigation.