Why has ‘pivot’ to Asia had underwhelming results?


Throughout much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, Southeast Asia was one of the brightest spots for democracy globally. Since the late 2000s, however, the region’s democratization has stalled; in some of its most economically and strategically important nations, it has even reversed, says a leading analyst.

Despite some positive developments, the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has been badly misguided in two important ways, Joshua Kurlantzick writes for Democracy: a Journal of Ideas:

  • First, the White House has focused too much on the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, which—with the exception of Vietnam—have provided minimal strategic benefits in return. This focus on mainland Southeast Asia has distracted attention from the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore—that are of greater value strategically and economically.
  • Second, increased U.S. ties with mainland Southeast Asia have facilitated political regression by empowering brutal militaries, condoning authoritarian regimes, and alienating young Southeast Asian democrats—at a time when democracy has stalled in the region and around the world, and U.S. support for a democratic revival is more important than ever. This deterioration is particularly apparent in Thailand, which seemed to have established a working democracy in the 1990s, but has regressed politically more than any other state in Southeast Asia over the past 20 years. Reform also has stalled in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. This political regression will have strategic downsides for the United States: In the long run, young Southeast Asians—the region’s future leaders—will become increasingly anti-American, and an authoritarian and unstable mainland Southeast Asia will prove a poor partner on economic and strategic issues.

Through the remainder of the Obama presidency and into the administration of the next President, the United States should refocus its Southeast Asia policy in two ways, argues Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations:

  • First, it should restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region. In particular, the United States should slow and, in some cases, halt growing military-to-military ties with the countries of mainland Southeast Asia. Such a policy might be difficult for a President Hillary Clinton, who has called engagement with Myanmar a highlight of her foreign policy as secretary of state, but it is essential for refocusing U.S. policy in Asia. Washington also should refocus its aid on democracy promotion in East Asia, a policy shift that would be easier for Clinton if she were President, as she has been a longtime advocate of rights and freedoms in Asia.
  • Second, the United States should upgrade its relations with Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam by working to sign a treaty alliance with Singapore and expanding diplomatic, economic, and military ties with these four nations. Such a policy shift would allow the United States to better align its Asia policy with democratic values and maximize the strategic benefits of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.

Although the Administration’s rationales for the pivot were first and foremost strategic—to address the growing importance of Asia to the world economy, the shift of U.S. interests away from Europe and the Middle East, and the rise of China (left unsaid)—the pivot was also theoretically designed to play a role in promoting democracy, he adds:

In particular, renewing U.S. relations with the authoritarian nations of mainland Southeast Asia was intended to help foster political change in these countries after sanctions and isolation had supposedly failed to induce reform…..

The United States also should renew its emphasis on democracy promotion in mainland Southeast Asia. It could do so by shifting the budget of USAID programs focused on democracy, the National Endowment for Democracy, and USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives to encompass more of Southeast Asia. Currently, according to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States devotes only roughly 4 percent of its aid spending to Asia—a miniscule amount given the developing region’s population. The United States also should make clear that it will respond harshly to future democratic reversals, including coups, in the region.

This essay is adapted from a Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper, “The Pivot in Southeast Asia: Balancing Interests and Values.”


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