The Cable’s Josh Rogin shared an open secret in an edition last week, namely that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not plan to continue in the Obama administration should the president win a second term in office. A post-Clinton Foggy Bottom is a real concern for Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia’s worry is this: Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell clearly saw the need and opportunity to engage the region, and they grasped it — firmly and decisively. The timing could not have been more important.
An ascendant China was naturally bound to test the limits of the regional influence it garnered during its effective charm offensive, kicked off after the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s.
Beijing tested its power by asserting its sovereignty and ‘core interests’ in the South China Sea, taking on Tokyo over the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands. Southeast Asia’s atavistic anxieties were immediately triggered, and it sought strong and enduring signals of US commitment and engagement in the region. Clinton and her Asia team, led by Campbell and supported strongly by Jeff Bader and his Asia directorate at the National Security Council, responded.
They signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC); forthrightly articulated an engagement strategy with Burma, which allowed the United States to have a place at the table with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and immediately institutionalised that opening with the US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting and by joining the East Asia Summit, with clear guidance from Clinton that the United States saw ASEAN as ‘the fulcrum’ of emerging regional architecture.
Additional steps have been taken by the State and Defence Departments to shore up traditionally weaker relationships in Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as welcoming the warm embrace from Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia to reinforce ties and take them to a new political level. Importantly, the United States has climbed back into the trade game — or is leaning in that direction at least — through reinvigorating the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) and putting its backing behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The effect of these collective actions has been impressive, but the question ASEAN is asking now is will the United States sustain its engagement through an enduring strategic focus and institutionalise that engagement? Is the current level of focus dependent on a highly committed Secretary Clinton and her super-motivated Asia team led by Assistant Secretary Campbell?
The region would welcome further signals of commitment and specifically wants to see the United States institutionalize its presence in the region. At a time when Congress seems divided along partisan lines, and some members so narrowly focused on trimming deficits that national interests may come in second, there is reason for concern.
The unimaginably tragic events in Japan will only heighten Southeast Asia’s concerns about long-term US commitment. Secretary Clinton should seal her legacy as ‘the Pacific secretary’ by working with Congress, civil society, the business community, and the administration to put enduring institutions in place to underpin the US commitment to a region of the world that is vital to our long-term national security and economic interests.
Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Author: Ernest Bower, CSIS
This post was originally published on the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ blog on the 17th of March, 2011.
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