President Obama recently concluded an extraordinarily eventful and lengthy trip through Asia. He was the first American president to attend the East Asian Summit in Indonesia and many analysts felt that his presence made a difference. While much attention was paid to the competitive aspects of U.S.-China relations, the broader consequences and outcomes of the trip are more nuanced.  

Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal joined Carnegie’s Vikram Nehru and Douglas Paal to discuss the outcomes of President Obama’s recent trip and what it means for future U.S. relations with the region. 

America’s Role in the Asia-Pacific Region

President Obama’s recent pivot away from protracted conflicts in the Middle East toward deepened engagement with the Asia Pacific region is a welcome move, Paal said. The Obama administration’s policy reflects the extent of U.S. interests in the region. 

  • A Pacific Presidency: The Obama administration is the first administration in 30 years to devote a level of policy involvement to East and Southeast Asia commensurate with the region’s importance to U.S. interests, Paal said. 
  • Emerging Regional Architecture: Institutions such as the East Asian Summit (EAS) can pave the way to deeper integration, Paal explained. To that end, President Obama launched the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade initiative to consolidate existing free trade agreements with the United States and generate a “magnetic force” to draw in new participants. 
  • Signs of a Political Opening in Myanmar: Myanmar’s inclusion in the U.S.-ASEAN Leader’s Forum reflected promising steps taken by President Thein Sein to begin serious political reform and address long-standing human rights issues, Paal added. 
  • Regional Sensitivity to China: While the media have inaccurately characterized the training facility in Australia as a new base from which U.S. forces can contain China, certain Chinese policies—such as an attempt to dictate the outcome of territorial disputes in the South China Sea—have sparked concerns in the region, Paal said. 16 of 18 leaders present at an informal meeting of the EAS reaffirmed the importance of resolving disputes in the South China Sea through international law, rather than unilateral force.
  • A Delicate U.S.-China Relationship: Anti-China narratives in the media have conveniently allowed U.S. officials to maintain the fiction of being “tough on China” while quietly cooperating with their Chinese counterparts, Paal concluded. To set a positive tone for next year’s visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, U.S. officials should defuse rising tensions regarding U.S. policy toward Asia. 

Dynamism in Southeast Asia

Indonesia has grown at an average of 7.8 percent a year from 1968 to 1998, matched by an extraordinary reduction in poverty from 60 to 11 percent, Nehru said. Its stellar record in development is emblematic of the dynamism that characterizes Southeast Asia. Nehru identified several trends that will increase the region’s importance in the coming years:  

  • Geographic Fortune: Southeast Asia sits astride the Malacca straits, through which 50 percent of the world’s shipping passes, including energy supplies to Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea. 
  • A Natural Convergence: Since 1968, Indonesia and Southeast Asia have joined the larger production network of East Asia, supplying intermediary goods to Chinese factories, which then assemble completed products to advanced economies. 
  • Policy Follows Markets: Market forces, rather than European Union-style policies, have produced a “noodle bowl” of 49 free trade agreements among East Asian countries. The TPP, however, goes well beyond arrangements at the border to address domestic policies on competition, procurement, and e-commerce that may give countries an unfair advantage in external trade.
  • Tensions in the South China Seas: The South China Seas are home to vital shipping lanes and a large repository of oil and natural gas. They will continue to grow in strategic importance, exacerbating disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands. 
  • Strategic Opportunities in Myanmar: Myanmar lies at the connection of Southeast Asia, China, and India and provides a land bridge from Southern China to the Bay of Bengal. Recent moves toward political reform have their origins in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, when ASEAN’s humanitarian efforts created a small space for dialogue. The cancellation of the Myitsone Dam also coincided with regional forums in East Asia and prompted Secretary Hilary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar.

Geopolitical Forces in Southeast Asia and the World

President Obama’s reengagement with the Asia-Pacific region is both welcome and necessary, Ambassador Djalal said. According to Ambassador Djalal, the coming “Asian Century” will be shaped by several geopolitical forces: 

  • More Relationships, Less Ideology: The end of the Cold War has reduced the role of ideology in determining relationships between nations, producing a convergence of interests. Indonesia, for instance, maintains a comprehensive partnership with the United States as well as strategic partnerships with China, India, South Korea, and Australia.
  • The Rise of Regionalism: ASEAN members want to be “masters and subjects” of their own region, rather than objects of major powers, Djalal said. Major initiatives launched by Southeast Asians without the involvement of the United States, China, or India, reflect a healthy regional maturity.   
  • China’s Inroads into Southeast Asia: China’s diplomatic and economic inroads into Southeast Asia may rank as some of the most important geopolitical developments of the past decade, strengthening regional order and yielding greater investment, Djalal said. 
  • Emerging Powers: The transformation of the G-8 into the G-20 reflects the emergence of new powers such as Indonesia, China, India, Brazil, and Turkey, among others. As a new dynamic equilibrium emerges in the Asia Pacific, the Indian Ocean will become a more important geostrategic and economic theatre.
  • Technologically empowered individuals: Technology as embodied by cell phones, fax, emails, and Twitter will chance how individuals interact with national boundaries in the 21st century, Djalal stated.