Why is Southeast Asia Increasingly Important to the United States?
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By Wen Xin Lim

Why is Southeast Asia Increasingly Important to the United States?

Aug. 22, 2017  |   Blog   |  3 comments

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently completed his voyage to Southeast Asia, after attending the August 2017 ASEAN Forum in the Philippines and thereafter visiting Malaysia and Thailand. Tillerson’s trip to Southeast Asia signified the importance of the region to the US and President Donald Trump’s commitment to outreach to the region.


Before Trump was sworn in as President, his predecessor Barack Obama had made the largest number of visits to the Southeast Asia countries of all US Presidents —13 times to be exact — including even “former adversaries Myanmar and Laos.” Obama was also the “first to travel to Malaysia in more than four decades.” Despite withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and watering down some aspects of the Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy after assuming the presidency, President Trump has continued to strengthen US relations with ASEAN.


In April, US Vice-President Mike Pence made his first trip to Indonesia — the most populous Southeast Asia country — to celebrate ASEAN’s 50th anniversary and to reinforce the bilateral relations between the US and Indonesia. This was the first trip by a US high official to Southeast Asia under the Trump administration. In May 2017, Tillerson hosted the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN in commemorating the 40th anniversary of US-ASEAN relations. It is expected that President Trump will attend the US-ASEAN Summit, the East Asia Summit, and the APEC Leaders Meeting in Vietnam and the Philippines this coming November.


There are a few reasons why the region has become increasingly important to the US in a globalized world. While Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy can be seen as a strategic rebalance of US influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Trump’s attempt to engage Southeast Asia is driven by security concerns, the top three of which are: East Asia, terrorism, and the South China Sea.


As the North Korean nuclear tensions escalate with the launch of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, President Trump has vowed to make the authoritarian regime pay if it threatens the United States. In view of the imminent conflict, the top priority of Tillerson’s trip to Southeast Asia in August was to canvass support for international sanctions against North Korea and to “urge Southeast Asian countries to do more to help cut funding streams for North Korea.” As Lee Sung Yoon opined, “The more united ASEAN countries are in enforcing sanctions, the better positioned the US will be in negotiating with North Korea.”


Besides attending the ASEAN Forum in Manila, Tillerson also made trips to Thailand and Malaysia, which both have established “special relations” with North Korea. In 2016, Thailand was reported to be the fourth largest trade partner of North Korea, with official bilateral trade worth USD 53 million. George McLeod, a Thailand-based political risk consultant, said in an interview that “Thailand and North Korea ‘have fairly robust, unreported trade ties.’” Among the goods exported from Thailand to North Korea, stainless steel and electronic circuits are “potentially or actually within the range of the UN sanctions imposed on North Korean imports,” and can be used for North Korea’s missile program.


In addition, North Korean businesses and enterprises have a presence in Thailand, and are believed to serve as financial means for the communist regime. Thailand has also been the main destination for North Korean refugees since 2004. Defectors from North Korea enter Thailand through the overland route which crosses the North Korea-China border, and then crossing from China into north-eastern Thailand, near the Golden Triangle through Laos.


Secretary Tillerson also visited Malaysia which has a troubled relationship with North Korea following the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur. The US has identified Malaysia as the crucial player to rein in and isolate North Korea, as “US intelligence-gathering has spotlighted Malaysia as a favoured location for North Korea and its proxies to hold secret meetings, do business to generate much-needed foreign currency and treat its ports and airports as transit points for its defence-related shipments.”


Apart from the North Korea issue, during his trip in Malaysia, Tillerson “also shared US views on how terrorism and extremism should be monitored, especially in social media, to curb the menace.” While Southeast Asian countries house around 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population, Indonesia and Malaysia contribute more than 85 percent to the Muslim population in the region. Malaysia thus plays an important role in countering the threats of rising radicalism and terrorism.


Three countries that Tillerson visited have all tilted away from the US towards China in their foreign policies, economic ties, and they all are undergoing gigantic infrastructure investment plans. Tillerson’s visits to these three countries thus holds the important significance of expanding the US’ sphere of influence to draw them closer to the US amid heightened security tensions in the region. However, this intention has become the secondary concern of the US as security concerns prevail over foreign influence and geopolitics under Trump’s inward-looking and domestic-oriented approaches.


The US “Pivot to Asia” trajectory has shifted to emphasize the shaping and crafting of security strategies and calling for concerted efforts to tackle security threats through cooperation as the upsurge in global terror attacks, radicalism, and nuclear threats unnerves and rattles regional players.