The Dark Heart of ASEAN

WASHINGTON, DC – Next week, at a summit in California, US President Barack Obama will meet with the leaders of the ten countries of Asia’s most important regional grouping: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The event, the first-ever US-ASEAN summit on American soil, is being touted as a sign of America’s growing interest in Southeast Asia. The question is whether the US, by inviting all members of ASEAN, has allowed its interests to overwhelm its principles.

The upcoming summit is the latest manifestation of the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia – a national security strategy that entails a shift of American military, economic, and diplomatic resources toward the Pacific Rim countries. In many ways, this move toward closer relations makes a lot of sense.

For starters, tensions between several Southeast Asian countries and China are on the rise, owing partly to the fact that China, under President Xi Jinping (its most autocratic leader since Deng Xiaoping), has been acting increasingly assertively in staking its contested territorial claims in the region’s waters. Most recently, China decided to move an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam. A similar decision two years ago led to deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.

And it is not just Vietnam that’s worried. Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines are also trying to upgrade their navies and coast guards. Indeed, two decades after essentially tossing US forces out of local bases, the Philippines has welcomed back American troops as part of a new military cooperation deal.