Several months ago, after writing an article complaining about the Obama administration’s lack of a coherent Asia policy, I got a fair amount of angry responses, pointing out the ways in which the administration’s Asia policy was beginning to emerge and would soon pay dividends. So, let me now give the administration credit, and also offer some worries. In the past two months, the administration has both shown much greater and more nuanced attention to Southeast Asia and has staked out clearer lines on where it stands on the region’s critical future issues. The question now is, can it back up its stances?
To review–after coming into office with a somewhat muddled China policy that seemed to please neither the Chinese nor many American opinion leaders, the administration has taken a tougher and firmer approach – and there is evidence from the past that, although Beijing may protest a tougher U.S. policy, it does appreciate consistency from Washington above all. The administration also has begun making good on its promises to be “back” in Southeast Asia, by weighing in on the South China Sea issue, by deciding to play a role in the East Asia Summit, and – possibly – by making Vietnam, not Indonesia, its most transformed foreign policy relationship in the region, not only through nuclear cooperation and joint exercises but also, in the longer run, the kind of security partnership the US now shares with Singapore. And, a more nuanced policy toward Burma, which mixes continued engagement with a willingness to back a UN inquiry into Burmese war crimes – shows an ability to rethink sanctions and also a desire not to get fooled by the junta.