The year 2015 provides the Obama administration with new opportunities in Southeast Asia to reinforce and bolster the rebalance to Asia.
In Myanmar, the United States should expand its support and training efforts to build political parties, strengthen the parliament, and prepare for monitoring activities ahead of the country’s 2015 elections to ensure they are inclusive, transparent, and credible. If the constitution is not amended prior to the elections to reduce the military’s veto power over amendments, Washington will want to push for this to be done soon after the new parliament and government take office in early 2016. This will be necessary to convince people in Myanmar that the country has turned the corner from military rule to democracy. In addition, the United States will want to continue supporting efforts by the government and armed ethnic groups to reach a ceasefire.
The president will want to follow up on his invitation to new Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to visit the United States. Obama should push to further flesh out the comprehensive partnership launched between the two countries in 2010. Cooperation on infrastructure development may be one idea on which the two countries can cooperate. Jokowi appears committed to rapid infrastructure development to reduce transportation bottlenecks, including developing Indonesia into a maritime power. This new focus may provide opportunities for participation by the U.S. private sector.
President Obama should plan to visit Vietnam in 2015 to push the comprehensive partnership, launched between the two countries in mid-2013, to new depths. The administration, which in September 2014 partially lifted the ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam, should continue to work with Vietnam to amend in the National Assembly ahead of the president’s trip. November 2015, when Obama attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia, would be a good time for the president to visit Hanoi.
The United States will want to continue to monitor developments in Thailand in the wake of the May 2014 coup and consider opportunities for the United States to engage its oldest partner in Asia. The generals had promised elections by the end of 2015 but it now appears that they have decided to delay voting until 2016 or even until the critical transition in the country’s monarchy takes place. Even in advance of elections, Washington will want to explore opportunities for contacts with private Thais to support the development of a middle ground where issues such as democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights can be discussed.
South China Sea
No matter what way the arbitration tribunal established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea rules in the Philippines’ case against China, probably before the end of 2015, it will be a watershed for the South China Sea disputes. How the United States responds, and in particular how successful it is in bolstering the case for peaceful resolution and respect for international law, will go a long way toward convincing Southeast Asia of the long-term sustainability and benefits of the U.S. rebalance.
The Obama administration has taken commendable steps over the last year to strengthen its position regarding the illegality of Chinese claims in the South China Sea—most recently by publishing a study on the nine-dash line via the State Department’s Limits in the Sea series. As a judgment in the arbitration case approaches, it will be crucial that Washington rally international support for the tribunal, and insist that China respect any award issued. U.S. support, and pressure, will also be necessary to strengthen spines in other Southeast Asian nations and ensure that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) voices full-throated support for Manila’s right to arbitration and the need to respect the ruling.
In the meantime, Washington should also step up efforts to bolster maritime domain awareness, patrol, and deterrence capabilities in Southeast Asia. This will include pushing the Philippines to implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in early 2014, boosting funding, training, and equipment transfers to partners including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In Vietnam’s case, it is unlikely that the administration will move to provide ships, radars, or armaments in 2015, but it should be actively consulting with Hanoi on Vietnamese needs and preparing to move once politically feasible.
The State Department should work to assist Southeast Asian claimants with legal clarification of their own claims in order to maintain the moral and legal high ground vis-à-vis China. The United States should also urge Southeast Asians to pursue bilateral agreements on overlapping claims where possible, agree among themselves what areas around the Paracel and Spratly Islands they consider legally disputed, and engage in a comprehensive survey of those features to counter the legal obfuscation caused by Chinese reclamation work on submerged features and low-lying features.
This article originally appeared in “Pivot 2.0: How the Administration and Congress Can Work Together to sustain American Engagement in Asia to 2016”. The full CSIS report is available here.