U.S. Incentives for Maintaining a Presence in South East Asia, and the Nature of that Presence

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Authors: Aqeel Ahmad Gichki & Adeel Ahmed*

The US is the most prominent extra-regional actor in the Southeast Asian area. Because of its strategic position and developing economy, the region is a center of attraction all over the world. As a result, the US has significant security and economic interests in maintaining its presence in the region. Furthermore, being the sole hegemonic power, the US has several hurdles to overcome in maintaining its hegemonic status. The threat that used to come from the USSR or Russia has now switched to China, and the ASEAN nations, as its neighbors, have inevitably turned into a hot tub between the two great powers’ competition. China has a tremendous motivation to preserve its dominance in the region and keep it free of any other player’s influence.

Due to the geostrategic importance of the location, China desires a strong presence in both the political and economic affairs of the region’s countries, since any instability or influence from an extra-regional actor in the region has a direct impact on China’s security and economy. For example, the Strait of Malacca, which is one of the world’s busiest maritime lanes, is a critical area of interest for both China and the US. Governing the strait or having influence over the internal affairs of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, which are adjacent to this chokepoint, will allow the specific player to exert possible control over a major portion of the world’s marine traffic.

The most compelling reason for the US to remain in the region is to contain China, as seen by its recent efforts in the region. The US considers China to be an existential danger, and American-based academics such as John Joseph Mearsheimer has already proclaimed “rising China” to be a menace to both the US and the whole region. To retain its influence in the area, the US withdrew all of its soldiers from Afghanistan and moved its emphasis to Southeast Asia. The founding of QUAD and AUKUS to confront China were bold and decisive measures.

Moreover, an assertive and hegemonic China may endanger freedom of passage in the South China Sea to pressure the US, Japan, or ASEAN states into supporting Chinese political demands. When confronted with this threat, the US may seek backing from individual ASEAN governments to carry out a sea-lane defense, or one of the ASEAN states may request U.S. assistance. While US naval troops would be the primary responders in such a scenario.

The US is attempting to preserve its presence in the region by forming regional security alliances and maintaining excellent ties with its allies, most notably Japan, which is an economic superpower with significant influence in the Asia-Pacific region due to its geostrategic location. In any emergency in the Asia-Pacific, most notably in the case of the Taiwan conflict, Japan will be beneficial to the USA by providing her with airbases.

In addition, Southeast Asian countries rely significantly on the US for defense weaponry because of China’s assertive posture in the South China Sea, which includes territorial claims and the construction of artificial islands. The US has developed significant military bases in Japan and maintains a significant military presence in Indonesia. Most significantly, securing the Malacca Strait by establishing military bases in strategic locations such as Indonesia and Singapore will force China to reconsider adopting coercive action in the region.

North Korea’s troubles provide another impetus for the US to retain its presence in the region. North Korea’s most serious concern is its ambition to acquire transportable nuclear weapons, which would endanger US interests throughout East Asia, perhaps pose an existential threat to Japan, and create a massive proliferation problem.

As Southeast Asia’s ten nations move clearly but unevenly into the global economy and in accordance with the information and technology needs of the twenty-first century, the US has a unique opportunity to assist influence the growth of this region and the lives of its people. The 10 nations there is home to about 525 million people and gross national output of more than $700 billion. They are the fifth-largest trading partner of the US. There is also the unchangeable truth of the region’s strategic geography: it stands astride some of the world’s most important sea-lanes, notably the Malacca Strait, through which roughly half of the world’s trade flows. This includes Persian Gulf oil, which powers the economies of Japan and Korea in Northeast Asia. Equally, if the US withdraws from or misreads the area, it risks causing harm to emerging democracies around the region that rely on US assistance. Consequently, the US has strong incentives to sustain its presence in Southeast Asia.

To conclude, Asia Pacific has historically been significant for the US, strategically, politically, and in terms of economic relations with the ASEAN nations. The US considered the broader Asia Pacific region as its area of influence and maintained security alliances, as a hegemon, for regional stability. Bilateral security alliances and multilateral strategic dialogues are prominent in the depiction of active US presence in the region. Moreover, US military/Naval bases in Singapore and Indonesia demonstrate the US as regional police. The US diversified its presence in the region with economic dynamism and public diplomacy as soft power instruments. Protection and promotion of democratic norms in the region and offering economic opportunities to emerging regional economies remained instrumental in US’s regional policy. To contain an emerging China, the subsequent US administrations indicated a commitment to a comprehensive grand strategy for the Asia Pacific with diversified tools to ensure an active US presence in the region. The US has expanded its alliances with other regional actors like India and Vietnam to prevent the expansion of resurgent China in the Indo-Pacific/Asia Pacific.

 * Adeel Ahmed is a student of International Relations from Quaid-I-Azam University Islamabad. 

Aqeel Ahmad Gichki
Aqeel Ahmad Gichki
Aqeel Ahmad Gichki is a graduate of International Relations. His area of study is Strategic studies. He can be reached at aqeegichki2[at]gmail.com

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