“The Obama administration deserves credit for the successes produced so far by its ‘pivot to Asia’, from the encouragement of political reform in Myanmar, to the creation of a permanent Marines base in Australia, to the initiation of joint military exercises with the Philippines,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick.
But Washington’s “pivot” fervor has gone too far, he argues:
It’s true that Southeast Asian nations like Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, are eager for closer cooperation with the United States to counter China’s perceived rise. But the Obama administration has been so eager to reciprocate that it has failed to give those countries’ governments, and especially their militaries, the scrutiny they deserve……[T]he Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia are all “flawed” democracies by the standards of Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Vietnam, though not a democracy, has a well-disciplined military that does not, by and large, commit massive abuses against its own population. But the Obama administration has also engaged with much seamier political actors, including regimes in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, where the military has often dominated politics.
Engagement with unsavory regimes is an inevitable consequence of the strategic shift, Kurlantzick writes in The New Republic – “Washington doesn’t choose the countries that surround China” – but the Obama administration appears to be placing its bets on the U.S. military’s capacity and inclination to foist security sector reform (and good human rights practices) on the region’s armed forces .
“Whatever the Pentagon’s ability to transform these regimes, it’s worth noting that they do not even provide the strategic benefits to the U.S. that would justify such cooperation,” he cautions:
Some U.S. officials warn that, without closer American engagement, Cambodia might be “lost” to China, which already is Phnom Penh’s biggest donor and investor, giving Cambodia some $500 million in soft loans two months ago. Laos could also plausibly tilt towards China, which provides extensive training for Lao soldiers, and is probably now Laos’ biggest donor (though no one knows for sure). But even if Cambodia and Laos tilted heavily toward China, would that be a serious blow to America’s presence in Asia? Not as long as the United States has strong ties to the more democratic countries in the region; the efficacy of the pivot doesn’t depend on its unanimity in the region.
Kurlantzick’s new book, The Decline of Democracy, will shortly be published by Yale University Press.