US President Barack Obama. (Reuters Photo/Kevin Lamarque)

Commentary: At Sunnylands, a Chance for a Southeast Asian Pivot


FEBRUARY 06, 2016

As preparations continue for the first-ever hosting of all Asean leaders by the United States at a summit in Sunnylands, California, this month, the US president has a chance to right an omission. That is to draw American attention to the value of a strengthening US-Southeast Asia partnership.  

In his seventh and last State of the Union speech last month, President Barack Obama asked Americans to ponder the economic and security challenges the United States is facing. 

The US president was decidedly upbeat. Americans though may well have had reason to pause. The December shootings in San Bernardino, California, just weeks earlier became the worst terrorist attack to occur in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.  And the latest Rasmussen Reports survey had 67 percent of Americans now saying their country is headed in the wrong direction. 

Yet, the US president declared: “I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.” And relative to much of the world, the US economy remains so. 

Unfortunately, an important message and geography lesson went missing amid the rhetoric. It was an opportunity missed for an administration that has added the phrase “Asia pivot” to the geopolitical conversation. That's shorthand for a rebalance of US attention away from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Americans could well have benefited from Obama’s taking a moment to underscore how strengthened trade and security relations with the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia will help the United States meet economic and security challenges: a pivot to Southeast Asia. 

In his address to the US Congress, Obama mentioned China specifically and Asia broadly, as he has in past years.  Yet, while Burma and the Philippines have been mentioned in prior addresses, Southeast Asia as a region has never caught the full attention of the presidential speechwriters’ final drafts. 

The region may well have expected a shout-out from a president who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s most populous country and largest economy. 

Obama did mention Vietnam in his final remarks, but it was to remind Americans of their nation’s difficult wartime legacy in that country. He looked to Southeast Asia’s past, not its dynamic future. 

“We … can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions,” Obama said. “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam.”   

Many in the United States would be surprised to know that this one-time enemy is now a significant American trading partner – and one seeking closer US ties amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.  Few likely also know that Thailand is the oldest treaty ally of the United States in Asia, by virtue of a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation signed in 1833. And Singapore remains a strong security partner of the United States. 

Americans would also benefit from learning more of how a recently upgraded, and largely welcomed US “strategic partnership” with nations in the region can lead to greater cooperation on economic and security issues.

Already, there is more US investment in the 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations than in all the “BRIC” nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, according to the US-Asean Business Council. 

The United States may well be striving to “remake” an international system to ensure greater economic and military security. That new system must engage and include the nations of Southeast Asia – described by Obama as being “critical to security, prosperity and human dignity around the world” last November at a US-Asean meeting held in Kuala Lumpur. 

The mutual benefits and opportunities of US-Southeast Asian partnership will become even more apparent to individuals and businesses in the near future as the just launched Asean Economic Community gains momentum. This market of some 600 million people and combined gross domestic product of $ 2.5 trillion deserved a mention by the US president. 

Understandably, the president’s attention turned to the just concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks as an example of American leadership in Asia. That trade initiative, if implemented would increase US exports by 9.2 percent, according to the World Bank. It does not, however, include all members of the Southeast Asia region. 

“With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do,” said Obama in calling on the US Congress to approve the landmark trade deal. “You want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement.” 

The US president’s final State of the Union address captured an overly cautious approach to Asia amid a rising China. Much of the region, including in Southeast Asia, hungers for a return of strong US leadership. 

Our hope is that one year from now, the new president – whoever he or she might be – will make clear that America remains staunchly a Pacific economic and military power, and a force for democracy, human rights and good governance. 

The 21st century may well be an Asia-Pacific Century. Yet, the State of the US Union is that the United States remains an Asian-Pacific power, and with attention, investment and involvement, it will remain so to the betterment of Southeast Asia, the broader region and world. That’s a tale worth telling, and it can begin again in Sunnylands, California. 

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B. Collazo, a Southeast Asia analyst, is an associate with RiverPeak Group.  and