As the Trump Administration prepares its political cabinet members to shape the dynamics of American politics, foreign policy analysts and observers are waiting to witness the multidimensional foreign policy priorities the 45th President and his advisors will incorporate in the apparatus of the Trump Doctrine. For member states of ASEAN, unverified expectations are looming in a regional environment filled with uncertainties. In November 2015, the U.S. inked the U.S.-ASEAN Plan of Action 2016 – 2020 – a landmark document that stipulated the foreign policy instruments the U.S. will implement in the forthcoming years to stabilize the relations between the two sides while respecting shared values and mutual commitments. This document also chartered the future courses of U.S.-ASEAN dialogue relations, thereby conveying a clear indicator to ASEAN leaders that the U.S-ASEAN ties are bound to experience positive developments and transformations. However, the recent change of leadership in American politics has made such prospect less credible. Stuttered by the uncertainties surrounding the future foundations of American statecraft, ASEAN leaders are anxiously waiting to see if Trump will recognize the significance of the U.S.-ASEAN institutional ties as much as Obama did during his legacy-building and applausive leadership.

The Obama Administration was a watershed moment for ASEAN. In the Obama Doctrine, American foreign policy towards ASEAN within the institutionalized framework of the Pivot to Asia had the tendency to be concretely proactive and conciliatory due to a myriad of distinctive features. It was crystal-clear to many experts that the U.S. attached significant importance to this regional grouping more than other Asian institutions since the origination of the Pivot in 2011. The development of the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership in 2015, the regular conducts of record-breaking diplomatic visits, the introduction of rapprochement policies with former adversaries (i.e. Vietnam), and the proactive engagement with Southeast Asian people via high-profile public diplomacy initiative called YSEALI all underscores the notion that ASEAN was one of the imperative cornerstones of Obama’s Asian Pivot despite its status as an evolving regional organization and a non-Western institutional establishment structured in the strategic context of the region.

The myths that are questionable at the present are the factors that motivated Obama to placate ASEAN in the American list of strategic priorities for the Pacific Century. At the time of this writing, many of the U.S.’s policy prescriptions have mentioned a variety of underlying interests that serve as the core imperatives of the Pivot to ASEAN. Yet, there are calculations that lie beyond the conventional policy agendas. This article will hence offer an analytical narrative of the calculations that invigorated the momentum of the Pivot to ASEAN. This article postulates that the rationales that impelled America to prioritize ASEAN in the Pivot’s agenda are grounded in five dimensions: (1) Economics, (2) Diplomatic, (3) Strategic, (4) Politics, and (5) Security.

From an economic rationale, the Pivot to ASEAN was primarily driven by America’s ultimate desire to tap into the economic potentials of the institution via strong and interactive economic interdependency. In 2008 (3 years before the Pivot was inaugurated), the American economy entered a phase of backwardness, stagnation, and slow growth. Domestic political polarization, intricate bureaucratic politics, and unmanageable international economic currents led to the sudden emergence of a subprime crisis in America, causing its glorious economy to experience abysmal challenges that retarded its macroeconomic growth for consecutively four years. To recover from such a precarious situation, the U.S. looked to many of its global partners for assistance. As expected, ASEAN was also prioritized. According to the U.S.’s vantage point, ASEAN’s dynamic economic regionalism, dynamism, and integration can in many ways contribute to its national economic recovery and progressive growth. Collectively, the ASEAN region comprised of the 10 rapidly growing Southeast Asian economies with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over 2$ trillion. Evaluated in hierarchy of international economic groupings in 2014, ASEAN was the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world. Over 640 million people inhibit themselves in the region, rendering its economic environment favorable for foreign direct investments (FDI), interregional trade, commercial expansions, financial cooperation, and more. Recognizing such economic prowess, Washington introduced various policy mechanisms to maintain interactive economic engagement with ASEAN via its institutionalized economic frameworks and arrangements, inclusive of key ones such as the 2002 Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative (EAI), the 2006 U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework (TIFA), the 2009 ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership for Peace and Prosperity, regional development initiatives (i.e. LMI), aid diplomacy, and more, to realize its economic interests in ASEAN. In 2014, trade in goods and services between the U.S. and ASEAN stood at roughly $254 billion, making America the fourth largest trading partner of ASEAN. Moreover, the historic passage of revolutionary trading arrangement in 2016 known as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which outlined the future courses of America’s trading policies with ASEAN, also epitomized the strong and culminating economic cooperation between the two sides.

Also read: Obama’s Legacy in Asia

Institutionally, the evolutionary process of ASEAN’s regional economic integration also attracted America’s attention. Understood in the framework of the Pivot, the U.S. viewed ASEAN’s regional process of economic integration as a paramount miracle that could produce benefits for the two sides in many dimensions. In the lens of the U.S., the ongoing transformation of ASEAN’s regional economic architecture from a loose institutional arrangement to a vibrant, cohesive, stable, and fully integrated ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) would not only reinforce the commercial ties between ASEAN and the U.S., but it would accommodate the strategic calculations of Washington by leveraging its position in economic competitions with regional economic powerhouses like China, India, and Japan. It was also these motives that influenced the U.S. to set in motion various engagement strategies gearing towards assisting ASEAN in designing, revolutionizing, and fastening its community-building initiatives and architectural evolutions in such a complex regional environment. A case in point is the continual support offered by America towards the establishment of an ASEAN Single Window (ASW), a system developed to streamline customs facilitation between ASEAN nations. Of course, persisting issues such as development gaps, slow macroeconomic growth, and the lack of an innovative Southeast Asian development model complicated the task of creating the regional conditions conducive for these economic undertakings. However, America also paid close attention to remedying these economic ills to keep the interdependency between the two sides rigid and steadfast.

Additionally, diplomatic rationales also underpinned Obama’s Pivot to ASEAN. On the diplomatic front, Washington strongly engaged with ASEAN under the Obama administration primarily to restore the diplomatic activism between the U.S. and ASEAN that was saturated by Bush’s ignorance. During the Bush Administration, Washington’s alignment with ASEAN was limited. As Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy approaches were highly bent on combating terrorism in the Middle East through sophisticated military operations under the banner of the global war on terror (GWOT), ASEAN was left neglected and undertreated. High-ranking diplomatic officials were absent during ASEAN gatherings, state visits were less frequent, and Congress passed various forms of hawkish policies to condemn ASEAN states that disrespected democratic practices and undermined regional politico-security norms, values, and principles in the region’s political environment. In the prelude to the Bush Administration, U.S.-ASEAN relations achieved great heights. Hostile acts during Bush’s leadership, however, significantly irritated Washington’s relations with both its traditional allies and prospective partners in ASEAN. After feeling the negative repercussions from such negligence, ASEAN leaders made public expressions of distrusts and reprisals towards the U.S., causing the Pacific Power’s reputation to become more weakened. This pitfall provided the impetus for Obama to undertake great efforts to reconfigure the American approach towards ASEAN. Following Obama’s ascendance to power, the U.S.’s presence in large-scale ASEAN gatherings became more continual, soft power diplomacy was later exercised more frequently that hard power diplomacy, and bilateral state visits became more frequent than ever. In 2013, a “Strategic Partnership” was developed between the U.S. and Vietnam to elevate their diplomatic relations to a new level. 2016 saw the U.S. granting logistical and economic assistances to Laos for removing explosive ordnances that were heavily dropped during the times of the Secret Bombing Campaign (1964 – 1973). Intriguingly, the U.S. also lifted tight economic sanctions on Myanmar as well as an arms embargo on Vietnam to manufacture a strategic rapprochement track with ASEAN. Therefore, it can be argued that the factor that motivated the U.S. to Pivot to ASEAN was its diplomatic objective to re-bolster its strained and hamstrung relations with member states of the regional institution.

On the strategic front, the containment of its strategic Asian rival China from asserting its hegemonic position in the region’s strategic environment was a predominant factor that pushed the U.S. to Pivot to ASEAN. In this regards, the Pivot to ASEAN also inherently bear some features which were directed towards engaging in a power competition with China to counterbalance its emerging rise in the Asia-Pacific region. Realist thinkers consider this narrative as “the China factor” in the Pivot’s agenda. Since 2002, China has been accelerating the pace of its national economic performance and military developments with great vigor to transform itself into a leading civilizational empire. Also, China has been undertaking a strategy predicated on restoring its lost status as a lone superpower and repairing the damages that it endured during the century of humiliation. Moreover, China has been endeavoring to structure a Sino-centric order in Asia’s strategic environment, and the proactive engagement with Southeast Asia is one of the central focuses of this strategy. As a formal ASEAN dialogue partner, China has institutionalized and fostered stronger multilateral collaboration with ASEAN states via a panoply of regional frameworks and multilateral initiatives. Economic-wise, China has been trading with ASEAN states through the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) and it is working towards culminating the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as marshalling endorsement for its geopolitical One Belt One Road  (OBOR) initiative from ASEAN member states.

At the socio-cultural level, China’s cultural soft power has also been rigidly embraced by Southeast Asian states. China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea also present the U.S. a major strategic concern. Indeed, China’s alignment strategies with ASEAN per se are purely gauged by motives to promote regional cooperation, but the U.S., on the other hard, perceives them as a strategy to channel its hegemonic influence over the institution. This deep-seated fear of a Chinese hegemony in ASEAN has propelled the U.S. to engage in a classical major power rivalry with the Asian great power on multiple circumstances, particularly in tensions surrounding the South China Sea dispute. As such, the Pivot to ASEAN was one of Washington’s policy designed to counterbalance against China’s emergent rise in Southeast Asia. The constituent elements of the policy, however, do not directly stipulate any instruments that are explicitly inclined to balancing China’s rise. Nor has the U.S.’s President affirmed that it is intended to counterbalance China. However, the fact that it is directed towards engage ASEAN at a time of continual Chinese encroachment in the regional institution, all of which were highlighted above, epitomize the notion that it also aspires to compete with China for strategic influence in ASEAN. For these reasons, it can be argued that the Pivot to ASEAN also had the motive to drift the institution away from China’s orbit in the strategic complexity of the region although this has not been frequently cited in the existing policy and strategic documents.

Politics-wise, the exportation of democratic values to Southeast Asian states was the ideological leitmotif of Obama’s Pivot to ASEAN. Recall that democracy promotion is also a pillar of the Pivot policy. Despite the change of political currents after the Cold War, Southeast Asia is a region that has witnessed continuous series of political transformations since the late 1990s and 2000s. However, democracy still remains fragile in the region’s political environment given the fact that a few authoritarian regimes (with the characteristics of military and religious dictatorships) persisted in countries like Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and more. In 2012, the Freedom House Index (FHI) enlisted the above-mentioned nations as “partly free” due to their inability to conform to democratic values. Thus, democracy in Southeast Asia stood on the brink of regression, which is a factor, that motivated Washington to take many efforts to promote democracy in the Pivot. These efforts range from reducing aids to authoritarian countries to conducting limited interventions into political upheavals that were deemed notorious to educating the publics on innovate ways to promote and enforce democratic principles in their societies.

On the ideological spectrum, the promotion of liberal democracy abroad is vital to American interests on various grounds. Functioning democracies not only resuscitate international peace and stability that protects the world from national security threats, but they also constitute as stable international actors, security and trade partners, and more. Additionally, strongly democratic states tend to be strategic and favorable America allies in the short medium and long run. In Southeast Asia, stable democracies are essentially vital for the concurrent development of political stability and sustainable development. In respect of these notions, the political aspect of Pivot to ASEAN lays in the fact that it is incepted primarily to export America’s democratic values to states that are or have been purged by undemocratic regimes. In November 2015, President Obama reassured this notion in a speech with Southeast Asian young leaders in which averred “The United States will continue to support the people of Southeast Asia as they seek to strengthen democratic governance and protect and promote universal human rights. The inclusion of the protection of human rights as a central policy element in the 2013 U.S.-Vietnam Strategic Partnership also vividly reminds us that democracy promotion is still an ideological staple of the America’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Above all of these calculations, security calculations have played an indispensible role in structuring the Pivot to ASEAN. The maintenance of international peace and security has been a major objective of many of America’s foreign policy doctrines given the fact that America has always aspires to portray its identity as a global policemen in international politics. This has become a dominant reality for many American IR thinkers. Hence, the Pivot also placed strong emphasis on remedying security threats in Southeast Asia through its engagement with ASEAN. Under the Pivot’s framework, regional security issues included terrorism, piracy, narcotics, cyber crimes, secessionist violence, maritime clashes, and more, merited high attention on America’s national security strategies. Between 2011 and 2015, military officials at the United States Pacific Area of Command (PACOM) maintained close oversight and management of security tensions in maritime Southeast Asia. Among all security issues, the South China Sea dispute was the most controversial security flashpoint that saw deep American involvement vis-à-vis China through both military and legal measures. Finally, the Pivot was also driven by the security motivation to deepen and strengthen America’s security alliance with its traditional partners in Southeast Asia. In an effort to maintain and consolidate its Southeast Asian alliance structure, the U.S. conducted various large-scale military exercises with strategic allies such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other key security partners. A number of security agreements were also stroke between the U.S. and ASEAN countries to expand and deepen security partnerships. The U.S. also undertook efforts to host and participate in many of the ASEAN-led security-related mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), and more. Complementing this was the provision of bilateral military aids in line with the sending of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to many strategic states to enhance their maritime security capabilities and promote social security respectively. Therefore, these revelations hence suggest that ASEAN presented a strategic vitality to the U.S. amidst it status as a non-Western security establishment. Of course, the shifting security alignments of ASEAN to support China offset this process on several occasions. Yet, America’s commitment to sustaining its alliance structure never diminished to the very bottom owing to its interests in promoting regional peace and security in Southeast Asia.

In retrospect, the above-mentioned considerations have played paramount roles in securing America’s foothold in ASEAN’s regional affairs and institutional undertakings. Whether these motivations will be placated in the upcoming administration still remain an unfathomable question for observers and practitioners of ASEAN’s foreign policies. However, Trump has often asserted that America will prioritize domestic issues over international affairs during his leadership, suggesting that the historical doctrine of isolationism could be re-invoked alongside the perpetual respect for chauvinism, patriotism, and nationalism. Moreover, a region of focus has not been declared in the Trump Doctrine as well. Whatever foreign policy course America chooses, ASEAN should keep its institutional centrality responsive to the changing scenarios of international politics. Given the revolving Asian order, strategic environment, power shifts, political currents, regional arrangements, and more, it is wise for ASEAN to keep its foreign policy with its extra-regional partners flexible, independent, and accommodative to its own members’ interests. ASEAN should also keep major powers enmeshed in its regional institutional arrangements to ensure that its centrality does not self-succumb itself to the push-and-pull strategies plus power vacuum of any major powers in region’s balance-of-power politics and ongoing strategic rivalries.

By Sithy Rath Daravuth
Lecturer of ASEAN Studies
Department of International Studies, The Institute of Foreign Languages
Royal University of Phnom Penh
January 20th, 2017


Mr. Sithy Rath Daravuth is a Cambodian currently working as a full-time lecturer at the Department of International Studies of the Institute of Foreign Languages in the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). He received his Bachelor of Arts in International Studies (with Honors) from RUPP in 2016. He is also an active alumnus of a number of recognized networks, including the Fulbright and Undergraduate State Alumni Association of Cambodia (FUSAAC), the Fund for American Studies (TFAS), and the Center for Global Politics (CGP). He can be contacted via

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.