Presidential Debates 2012: Why Romney and Obama Must Address Southeast Asia

As election day draws closer, foreign policy issues have dominated conversations between the presidential candidates — most recently, during the vice-presidential debates. Mitt Romney’s blistering comment that “hope is not a strategy,” an attack on Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy, is perhaps the most iconic example.

Some of the issues which Romney highlighted in his critical speech include the present management of the ongoing conflict in Syria, the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, and the attack on the diplomatic post in Libya, as well as Obama’s reluctance to take any action with regards to a perceived Iranian threat (despite David Rothkopf’s report in Foreign Policy of a possible U.S.-Israel surgical strike on Iran).

Amid these heated claims, the key region of Southeast Asia received scant attention from both campaigns. Southeast Asia is the site of several major recent political events, including the ongoing democratic changes happening in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and a peace deal reached by the Philippine government with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group in the south.

For about a year now, the Obama administration has started moving its focus toward Southeast Asia. Obama traveled to Indonesia in 2011, followed just last month by another visit, this time by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on her way to East Timor and Brunei. The U.S. was also the first non-ASEAN (the association of ten Southeast Asian member states) country to establish a mission to the ASEAN Secretariat in Indonesia.

U.S. presence in Southeast Asia will continue to increase, even as the U.S. denies accusations that the renewed interest in the region is aimed at containing China. Southeast Asia may very well be the arena of a possible China-U.S. confrontation in the coming years as economic interests in the region continue to grow.

Both countries have already begun to stake claims in the region through economic cooperation. On Sunday, the leading Asian oil refiner, the Chinese company Sinopec, started building the region’s largest oil storage terminal in Indonesia, estimated at US$850 million. In Burma, U.S. multinationals have begun plans to invest in the country’s newly liberalized economy by forming partnerships with local companies.

The U.S. is also currently involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact negotiations, aimed at establishing free trade agreements among the U.S. and the ten Southeast Asian countries. And as Clyde Prestowitz finds, these talks are about more than just free trade. In fact, they are a way in which the U.S. can signal that it is back, having left Vietnam and the Philippines several decades ago, and that it has renewed interest in the region.

The U.S. will face several difficulties in returning to the region. In order to assert itself as an influential presence, the U.S. must first contend with Chinese and other East Asian economies in the region. Amid the U.S.-led free trade rounds of negotiations, ASEAN countries have also begun a different round of trade talks, but this time with China, Japan, and South Korea. U.S. foreign and trade policy then must not only compete with these rapidly growing East Asian economies but also be able to court ASEAN countries.

This latter task will prove challenging given the current skepticism of the U.S. among many citizens in ASEAN countries. The coalition of opposition parties in Malaysia, which stand a chance of winning the upcoming general elections, created a stir when they criticized the ruling party in government for allowing a U.S. supercarrier to berth at Malaysia’s main trading port. This forced the Malaysian Defense Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to assure the public that Malaysia would not host a foreign military base. Similar suspicions have been voiced by opposition lawmakers in Thailand against U.S. government plans to expand use of a military base just southeast of Bangkok.

These domestic concerns are clearly linked to a very noticeable increase of U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, the consequences of which remain extremely uncertain. Journalists and voters, however, have yet to ask Obama or Romney tough questions about their foreign policy approaches to Southeast Asia, especially given Indonesia’s growing role in counter terrorism efforts, the rapidly changing political landscapes of Burma and the Philippines, and economic growth in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Factor in Chinese interests in trade in the region amid stalled European and U.S. economies, along with Chinese encroachment on the South China Sea islands, which would grant access to fisheries and large oil reserves, and it becomes clear that Americans need to elect a president who will be most equipped to avoid a potential armed clash in the seas of Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, with both Obama and Romney campaigns singularly fixated on the September attacks that killed four U.S. citizens in Libya, Southeast Asia will unlikely be a topic of discussion at this Tuesday’s second presidential debate.

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Jia Hui Lee

Student of politics, gender, and social justice. But mostly of life. Malaysian-born but peripatetic.

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