The United States must step up its involvement in Southeast Asia by adopting a comprehensive strategy with security, economic, and governance components to defend its interests and ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, according to a report released Tuesday by a conservative U.S.-based think tank.
Southeast Asia holds geopolitical importance on account of the sea lanes that pass through it, its proximity to China and India, and the resources which it contains — all of which have driven developments in and competition over the region for hundreds of years, says the report by the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which conducts public policy research.
The 68-page report titled “An American Strategy for Southeast Asia” outlines a framework for a comprehensive U.S. strategy in Southeast Asia, a region comprised of 635 million people in 11 countries, which has been increasingly affected in recent years by China’s growing economic and military might.
The Trump administration has rolled out an Indo-Pacific strategy to remodel the U.S. approach to the region in an effort to manage China’s militarization in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean and growing Chinese economic power with its multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure development in Eurasia and Southeast Asia.
China’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea and its military buildup on man-made islands pose a security threat not only to its Southeast Asian neighbors, but also to American interests in the region, given the potential of drawing the U.S. into the territorial tussles, the report says.
AEI suggests that the U.S. try to “proactively shape” the security situation in Southeast Asia in ways that are conducive to peace and stability, such as making itself available as a mediator to states if the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fails to maintain peace.
“A region at peace with itself and with others will deny unfriendly external powers opportunities to exploit divisions and will ensure an environment in which Southeast Asia’s political and economic development can advance at a faster pace, to the benefit of Southeast Asia and Americans alike,” the report says.
The report also notes that because Southeast Asia as a whole has not yet embraced free trade and the free flow of capital, the U.S. should aim to reshape the region so that it embraces free-market economics and is more deeply integrated in international trade.
“Such integration will ultimately lead to greater prosperity in the region, more opportunities for American businesses, and international competition that will benefit American consumers,” the report says. “Such integration will contribute to greater regional stability as well.”
Good governance over democratization
The report also suggests that the U.S. consider prioritizing good governance over democratization, which has proceeded sporadically in recent years in the Philippines and Indonesia, and which is nonexistent in the communist nations of Vietnam and Laos.
Because the region as a whole is in the midst of a transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, a process that the U. S. has supported, about 360 million people are living in democratically developing states, but the remainder live in countries with limited freedoms or say over who governs them, the report says.
“[A] broader and deeper embrace of free markets and of responsive and accountable government would undergird America’s pursuit of its security objectives in the region,” the report says.
To encourage this, the U.S should define a trade agenda for the region through bilateral free trade agreements, increased engagement with ASEAN, and increased involvement in regional development banks, including the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Japan-led Asian Development Bank.
The report also recommends that the U.S. provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees from the region to mitigate the effects of migration crises from both natural and man-made disasters.
It advises Washington to continue to press for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning violence by Myanmar’s military, such as the two crackdowns on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017 that drove roughly 800,000 over the border to Bangladesh and subjected others to killings, torture, and rape.