To the South of Mainland China and to the East of the Republic of India lies Southeast Asia, a region with a compelling history of major power rivalries and of strategic importance to the present balance of power.
The Southeast Asian region is located at the crossroads of major power rivalry with multiple states having a variety of interests in the concerned region. Southeast Asia’s economic importance can be linked to the concentration of raw materials in the region.
These include oil, rubber, tin, manganese, rice, gold, and copper. For this purpose, Southeast Asia is one of the most strategically vulnerable areas in the world.
The United States of America (US) has been involved in this region post its isolation era and has had a variety of interests at stake in this region over the course of history.
With the recent global shift towards geo-economic, the South East Asian region holds great economic potential for the US coupled with security and military interests.
Over the course of history, from the cold war up till the contemporary world, US foreign policy has taken various shapes for this region.
In the cold war, the US foreign policy towards the South East Asian region was of ‘benign neglect’ that was characterized by policies ‘limited to reactions to specific and often unanticipated events’.
However, with the changing international system and US’s position in the world order, these policies have taken various shapes.
US interests in South East Asia
According to the foreign policymakers of the US, Southeast Asia has always been a region of derivative interests, due to several reasons, out of which geography is the main one.
As the US and the Southeast Asian states share no border, the US has no direct territorial interests in the region.
With regards to the economic resources offered by Southeast Asia, there are few resources that the US obtains from the region that are of critical nature to its economy.
Despite this, the region is a vital trading partner of the US and offers a healthy market for American products. However, what makes Southeast Asia of great importance to the US is its strategic location.
The principal determinant of US policy towards Southeast Asian countries has been its perception of the region’s relevance to the pursuit of its global geopolitical and strategic goals.
With regards to that, over the span of history, American foreign policy in the region has been shaped not much with reference to the interests of the Southeast Asian states but with reference to American interests concerning the Soviet Union and China.
These interests have fluctuated pertaining to the position of the US in the international system, impacting American foreign policy in the region.
Evolution of American Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia
In the post-WWII era, the US emerged as one of the leading powers which led to major re-adjustments in its foreign policy throughout the cold war era.
Its policy towards Southeast Asia started evolving from the cold war era on the basis of the developing interests in the region and the challenges posed to the US.
US, Cold War, and Southeast Asia
The US got involved in the Southeast Asian region in the cold war to comply with its policy of containment against the USSR.
The main purpose was to contain Soviet ideologies in Southeast Asia. From the very beginning, the US wanted to keep the newly independent nations of Southeast Asia committed to democracy and the idea of free enterprise.
On the other hand, the Southeast Asian states faced an ideological vacuum due to the collapse of Asian Nationalism in China in 1949.
The Americans feared that in order to protect these newly independent states from Russian containment and European dependence, Asian nationalism might not prove to be a viable force to resist them.
The US tried to fill that void to contain the Soviet Union and China in that region. It helped the new nations in transitioning from ex-colonies to nation-states through technical and economic assistance for the containment of communism in the region.
In the four decades of the cold war, the US involvement in the region and foreign policy has been limited to prevent Southeast Asia from coming under the control of the power dominating mainland China.
Over all these years, a number of Presidents came and went, and the US foreign policy has stuck to catering to its regime’s interests and has hence been shaped accordingly.
The Policy of Benign Neglect
The US Policy in Southeast Asia by the end of the 20th century was of benign neglect in which the US remained primarily inattentive to the region and showed involvement only sporadically in response to any political crisis or to ensure access to markets.
Although the Cold War was marked by the policy of containment by the US, the Vietnam Syndrome during the Nixon era limited it’s foreign policy initiatives in the South East Asian region.
After the Vietnam War, the US limited its reactions to specific and unanticipated events, which characterized US policy in the region with benign neglect and missed opportunities.
For instance, during the Carter administration (1977-1981), although the US was inclined towards a détente with the USSR, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia backed by the Soviet Union compelled its involvement in the region.
At that time, President Carter had to ensure closer relations with China to contain Soviet and Vietnamese designs in Southeast Asia, which was followed by its support for the ASEAN.
This increased Soviet activity compelled the next US President, Ronal Raegan (1981-89), to show continued support for ASEAN and resistance forces opposing Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
Otherwise, President Reagan kept the Southeast Asian region on a scale of low priority with regard to US Foreign policy.
In the post-cold war era, the world order changed and the international dynamics gave birth to a unipolar world with the US sitting on top as a hegemon. Despite the position, the US involvement got limited in the region as a result of the Vietnam syndrome.
The foreign policy catastrophe of the US involvement in Vietnam during the Nixon era developed a fear in American foreign policies for the future.
As a result, both the Bush administration (1989-93) and Clinton administration (1993-2001) lacked a unifying foreign policy that was in coherence with foreign policy themes equivalent to the cold war anti-communist ideological struggle.
In the Bush era, the key post-cold war goal of the US was to assure American access to Asian markets. Pertaining to that position of the US, Asia observed the assurity of American access to Asian markets as a pre-condition for regional economic growth.
Southeast Asia’s regional economic growth became central to US foreign policy as it generated markets for American goods in Asia.
After Bush, the Clinton era was also characterized by the previous US policy of energetic economic growth in Southeast Asia. During this time, greater focus was on multilateral institutions like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) by the US.
However, it is to be noted that the Southeast Asian countries were given sporadic attention by the US in the post-cold war years.
The occasional pressure of the US in this region based on the democratization of the Southeast Asian regimes was what characterized US foreign policy at that time.
The US left a vacuum of its presence in the region during the post-cold war years by turning its attention to Europe and the Middle East.
Obama’s Asia Pivot
Obama came into power as “the first Pacific President,” believing that George W. Bush’s administration had given the issues affecting Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia too little attention and that it should resume & then increase its long-standing level of engagement there.
The years of the US disengagement in the region gave China a vacuum to fill during its growing years. China made significant contributions to the ASEAN Regional Forum.
These were in form of the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (ARF) in the decade the US left a power vacuum in the Southeast Asian region.
In the middle of the 2000s, Beijing and ASEAN negotiated a free trade deal that included substantial “early harvest” provisions; the whole agreement went into force in 2010. Of course, the United States was not included in this agreement.
Beijing backed the ARF as the primary regional security forum, presumably because it had proven time and time again that it would work entirely by agreement and refrain from tackling contentious specific topics.
In light of this, Obama decided to firmly support two separate multilateral institutions in the Southeast Asian region, which he did in November 2011.
However, despite Obama’s interest in the Southeast Asian region, the US involvement in the Middle East emerged as the main challenge for the Obama administration to carry out US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific as a whole.
Trump’s America First Policy
The America First Policy of President Trump led to the US stepping back in its policy advancements in Southeast Asia. The four years of the Trump administration and Southeast Asia showed a mixed record.
Trump’s government did not give ASEAN nearly as much attention as the Obama administration did. In 2017, the President’s participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS) was cut short, and in 2019, the administration sent the lowest-level delegation ever from the United States to the EAS and ASEAN-US Summit.
Despite the retreatment of US involvement in the Southeast Asian region during the Trump regime, the US interest in keeping a check and balance on China still remained intact. Trump ensured the necessary presence for countering China, through his visit to North Korea.
Biden’s ‘America is back!’ Policy
After coming to power, the current President Joe Biden announced that ‘America is back’. This policy of Biden is mainly targeted towards filling the foreign policy gap created during the Trump administration in a number of regions, but mainly in Southeast Asia.
The main interest of the US in this region pertaining to the current international politics is to win the strategic competition against China in this region.
However, despite the honing of an Indo-Pacific strategy, Washington is still no closer to a clear trade agenda that might counteract some of China’s massive economic pull on the region.
Apart from that, for the Biden administration, it is critical to defend democracy at home and abroad, as his emphasis on values and democracy will make it difficult for the US to engage in a region dominated by autocracies in the quest to outcompete China.
The entire Southeast Asian region is very important for the US, for its bigger strategic interests, and involvement in that region has become more important than ever in the current times.
From the beginning of the cold war, up till the present times, the US despite its many efforts is facing challenges to establish its presence in the Southeast Asian region.
The main reason behind this is the power vacuum left by the US in this region during its peak years of hegemony.
The post-cold war era in the US foreign policy was characterized by a tilt toward the Middle East, which neglected the Southeast Asian region.
In this neglect, China came in to fill the vacuum, and that too during its developing years. China placed itself in the region economically, politically as well as socially, leaving little or no space for the US to establish itself in the region.
In the current times, the Biden administration is facing this challenge, however, they have adopted a policy of effective involvement in Southeast Asia through its Indo-Pacific strategy.
*The writer is a Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight, published by the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies
Disclaimer: The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues and the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff.