Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
• President Obama's visit to Southeast Asia in November 2012 highlighted the increased strategic and economic importance of this region in America's Indo-Pacific strategy.
• The President's presence at the East Asian Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting showed US support for the ASEAN-centred regional security architecture and its desire to be an active player in helping to shape its future direction.
• In Thailand Obama tried to shore up relations with an old treaty ally which has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, with an enticing middle class market for US exports. It is uncertain if Obama's visit will revitalise the relationship and induce Thailand to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership which US earnestly seeks.
• The visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting US President, was symbolically important in demonstrating US support for the country's reforms. After being heavily dependent on China, Myanmar is now seeking more balanced relations with the major powers. It is in the US interest to see this attempt succeed, together with the country's internal reforms. However Myanmar will not become an American
military ally or even a security partner, given the country's strong tradition of neutrality.
• The US-China contest for influence is also being played out in the South China Sea. Although the territorial disputes in the sea are between China and four Southeast Asian states, China's extensive claims raise the stakes for the US in view of the strategic and commercial importance of the South China sea to the US and its allies.
Obama's three-day visit in November 2012 to three countries in Southeast Asia, viewed by some as “swing states” in the contest for influence between the US and China, was portrayed by the US side as part of its process of pivoting or “re-balancing” to the Indo-Pacific region. Apparently, that process is a broad one requiring sustained diplomatic, economic and security engagement.
The visit highlighted again the increased importance of Southeast Asia in America's strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, stretching from Japan in northeast Asia, to Australia in the south, and to India in the west.
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