As China's presence and role in Southeast Asia expands, many in the region are questioning America's staying power. To explore this question, I spent a month in Washington, DC, interviewing a range of experienced experts to ascertain what the current thinking is, what the debates are, and the likely future trajectory of United States (US) policy in Southeast Asia.
This paper first addresses the present trends in US foreign policy, the mood in US policy circles towards China and the role played by President Trump, whose stances are not always in tandem with that of the relevant bureaucracies and of Congress. It then goes on to examine US policy to Southeast Asia, the region's importance to US interests, the current US “influence deficiency” in Southeast Asia and the prospects of the US augmenting its influence and standing. Certain misperceptions of the US within Southeast Asia are then discussed before some concluding observations are made.
A NEW TURN IN US FOREIGN POLICY
The fundamental interest of the US in Asia has remained unchanged for over a century, since the Open Door Notes on China in 1899 and 1900. It is to keep Asia open to the US for trade and investments and to oppose closed spheres of influence. The US has used different means to ensure this—balance of power before the Pacific War, the war itself, Cold War resistance to communist expansionism, and post-Cold War primacy.
A new phase in US foreign policy seems to have begun, propelled mainly by three factors. First, the hubris and over-reach during the immediate post-Cold War period, correctly seen in hindsight as a “unipolar moment”, led to wasteful and costly wars in the Middle East. Second, domestic policy failures in coping with the negative effects of globalization resulted in significant damage to US manufacturing industries and sections of the white working class. The global financial crisis of 2008–9 only accentuated the economic distress.
A reaction to these two developments was bound to come sooner or later—and it came, if rather surprisingly, in the form of candidate Trump with his “America First” rhetoric. Trump's Jacksonian ideas of self-reliance and isolationism, and the denigrating of external commitments are not new to American foreign policy.