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The U.S. Pivot to Southeast Asia: Prospects and Pitfalls

0900–1030, Saturday 16 April 2016, L2

Maria Strasakova
Metropolitan University Prague

Maria Strasakova
Metropolitan University Prague

Maria Strasakova
Metropolitan University Prague


The term “pivot to Asia” started to appear in the official U.S. discourse after 2011, after then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had published her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the Foreign Policy magazine. Since then, the Asia-Pacific has become a strategic priority of the U.S. administration. As time passed, the rather vague term “pivot” has acquired more concrete contours and terms such as “rebalance” or “counterbalance” of a rising China started to dominate the debate. With this shift, the region of Southeast Asia, where China has become a key economic and military player, has gained a greater significance in the U.S. strategic thinking. The U.S. pivot encompasses five key components, i.e. the military redeployment to the region, strengthening old alliances and building new ones, the active U.S. participation in building a strategic architecture, economic resurgence and ideological assertion (the promotion of human rights and democracy). However, these lofty objectives, on one hand, and so far meagre tangible outcomes, on the other, have become a theme of much scrutiny and debate. Thus, the objective of this panel is to analyze the prospects and limitations of the U.S. pivot to Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on regional and bilateral relations of ASEAN states with the U.S, especially in the security sphere (e.g. in the South China Sea), its impacts on the cohesion of ASEAN economic cooperation, the expansion of U.S. economic stakes via the Trans Pacific Partnership and the prospects for the promotion of human rights and democracy in the region.


Paper 1: ASEAN: the ‘regional conductor’ of the Asia-Pacific ‘orchestra’

Robert Yates
University of Bristol

This paper addresses the key puzzle of the prominent part the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played in negotiating and managing regional order in Southeast and East Asia. It argues that ASEAN’s prominence is not merely the result of structural dynamics of great power rivalry providing space for ASEAN, nor necessarily a unique regional normative or ideational context; rather, the puzzle is better explained by tracing a cumulative process of social role negotiation from the early years of the Cold War to the present day. The paper identifies three role processes that have characterised different periods in the evolution of regional order in Southeast and East Asia. Firstly, ‘role redefinition’ between 1954 and 1975 when the US’ efforts to impose its vision of order and conception of its own role on Southeast Asia led to frictions and contestation which eventually resulted in the redefinition of how the ‘great power’ role would operate in the region. The key aspect of this redefinition was the decoupling of the function of ‘diplomatic leadership’ from the generic great power role and its transfer to regional states, performed collectively by the emerging ASEAN. Secondly, ‘role-taking’ during the Cambodian conflict 1979-1991, when China took on a ‘regional great power guarantor’ role, ‘holding the line’ against possible Soviet-Vietnamese penetration of ASEAN’s nascent non-communist order. As part of the social role bargain between ASEAN and China, China endorsed the expansion of ASEAN’s diplomatic leadership to cover the full extent of Southeast Asia, contributing to the advance of ASEAN’s own regional role. Finally, ‘role creation’ in the post-Cold War period, whereby ASEAN has successfully built on previous negotiations to create what I call a ‘regional conductor’ role, enabling the Association to provide the key functions of ‘inclusive engagement’ and ‘rule-making’ in the wider East Asia/Asia-Pacific region. The paper argues that the metaphor of the wider region as an ‘orchestra’ with ASEAN as a ‘conductor’ better captures what it is that ASEAN does (and does not do) for regional order than alternative conceptions such as that of the ‘driver’; principally, providing a forum for all powers and players to engage with each other, and a set of norms by which they can all agree to.


Paper 2: Washington´s Multilateral and Bilateral Relations with Southeast Asian Actors: ASEAN, the Philippines and Vietnam

Alfred Gerstl
University of Vienna

Since announcing the “Pivot to Asia” strategy, Southeast Asia´s strategic importance has further increased for the United States. Even though Washington has never neglected this region after the end of the Cold War, the Obama Administration has since 2009 demonstrated a new commitment to multilateralism in Southeast Asia. By signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2009, the US removed the biggest hurdle for joining the ASEAN-led East Asian Summit (EAS) in 2011. This step marks a significant departure from the traditional U.S. hubs and spokes approach. The plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), though, seem to favor a selective, US-friendly form of regionalism, directed against the rising China.
This presentation will analyze Washington´s strategic, military and economic relations with ASEAN as well as the Philippines and Vietnam in general and in particular in regard to the conflict in the South China Sea since 2009. At the first view, the Southeast Asian players benefit from the renewed US engagement: ASEAN is interested in strengthening the multilateral order in East Asia and in maintaining the balance of power between China and the US. Manila and Hanoi pursue specific internationalization strategies in the South China Sea to increase their strategic leeway towards China. Due to its unmatched military power the US is thereby the key partner. It will ask whether one partner aims to instrumentalize the other, notably in its relations with China, or if there are prospects for a win-win partnership for both sides and the region at large.


Paper 3: Internationalizing the Exploration and Exploitation Efforts by Vietnam and the Philippines: Leeway for U.S. Engagement or Avoiding U.S. Dependency?

Jörg Thiele
University of Vienna

Internationalization has become a popular buzzword in regard to the South China Sea (SCS) conflict. States like Vietnam and the Philippines are eager to engage more outside actors into the regional affairs, aiming to improve their hedge towards more assertive actors. One dimension where internationalization plays a significant role is energy cooperation, particularly oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the SCS. States offer economic interests to foreign firms and countries, which shall strengthen their host countries engagement in the region. At the same time these interests can be used by the host states to extend their presence in the region or to increase their voice in the regional institutions.

Against this background, the paper will address the question of “How do the energy cooperation activities of U.S. companies in the Vietnamese and Philippines national SCS offshore oil and gas sector reflect the “Pivot to Asia” since 2009?”. Given the lack of profound conceptualization, the paper will start by outlining a refined definition and empirical framework to assess the internationalization efforts of states. Based on this assessment, the activities of U.S. companies in Vietnam and the Philippines will be examined and discussed with respect to the U.S. pivot since 2009. Although, the realm of energy cooperation provides several incentives for states, the results suggest that compared to Australia or Russia, the United States is not an active actor in Vietnam and the Philippines. While this does not contradict the general importance of the United States, it provides several interesting implications.

On to Part II: The U.S. Pivot to Southeast Asia: Prospects and Pitfalls (II)