Southeast Asia and the U.S. 'Pivot': Neglected Target of Opportunity

Southeast Asia and the U.S. ‘Pivot’: Neglected Target of Opportunity

Dr. Ellen Frost, East-West Center
October 30, 2015

The Obama administration’s “pivot” policy assigns a higher priority to Southeast Asia than any of its antecedents. So far, however, the region has attracted less attention and fewer resources than its size and importance would justify. The ten members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion and more than half a billion people. Their growth rate is among the highest in the world. They plan to establish an “ASEAN Economic Community” by the end of 2015. ASEAN is the hub of a remarkable number of initiatives, from trade and investment to non-traditional security. But the region faces formidable challenges. It contains Singapore, one of the richest countries in the world, and Laos, one of the poorest. Indonesia has more Muslims than the entire Middle East, including Iran. Malaysia is a new member of the UN Security Council as well as this year’s chair of ASEAN.  Vietnam is a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is developing a robust export industry. On the security side, Southeast Asia contains two U.S. treaty allies (Thailand and the Philippines). As tensions in the South China Sea have escalated, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all strengthened their security ties with the United States. The Philippines and Vietnam have pushed back — hard — against China’s territorial claims and are hoping for more U.S. support. Meanwhile, China’s new infrastructure bank has targeted the region’s enormous needs, posing a challenge to U.S.-supported institutions. India is also seeking closer relations with its southeastern neighbors. If current trends continue, will regional rivalries remain peaceful, or will Washington have another crisis on its hands? Why does Southeast Asia matter for the United States – and for New Mexico in particular? The state is home to over 16,000 ASEAN-Americans (almost 40% of the state’s Asian population), but exports to ASEAN countries amount to a mere 3% of the state’s total. Are the citizens and companies of New Mexico paying enough attention to this dynamic region?

Dr. Ellen Frost is a Senior Advisor at the East West Center and a Visiting Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She writes frequently on Asian economic issues. Her most recent book is Asia’s New Regionalism (2008). She previously served in the US government as Counselor to the US Trade Representative (1993–95), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Economic and Technology Affairs (1977-81) with various positions in the Treasury Department (1974–77) and the State Department (1963). She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University, where she specialized in the politics and foreign policy of China.

Supported by Sandia National Labs and Haverland Carter Lifestyle Group