- GS-2: Bilateral, regional and global groupings affecting India’s interests.
US Exit from Afghanistan & South East Asia
Context: Several Southeast Asian governments were forced to hurriedly evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan as the result of US decisions, and there are concerns that a surge of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan could increase the threat of terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia.
Evolving US Policy towards South East Asia
- In the decades after the end of the Vietnam War, US interest in Southeast Asia was typified in foreign policy circles as a form of “benign neglect.”
- However, with the rise of the region’s economies, as well as the threat of a more assertive China, Southeast Asia became a key region for Washington, marked by the so-called pivot to Asia policy from the Obama administration in 2011.
- The United States is a key economic and security partner of most Southeast Asian governments and has a treaty alliance with Thailand and the Philippines, as well as close defense ties to Singapore and Vietnam.
- Washington has taken the side of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in their disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea.
What is the concern now?
- The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan has forced some S.E.Asian countries to question whether US will come to their defense if a violent conflict broke out with China.
- However, Southeast Asian governments are aware that US interests in their region are vastly different from what the US has tried to achieve elsewhere.
- While US intervention in countries like Afghanistan revolved around anti-terrorism efforts and nation-building, in Southeast Asia, US’s interests focus on improving already close relations with stable states.
- Moreover, the US in Afghanistan tasked itself with providing much of the country’s security, as well as bankrolling a weak and impoverished state.
- Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, from which American businesses can profit. The Southeast Asian bloc is America’s fourth-largest trading partner, according to US government data.
Will Southeast Asia now get more US attention?
- Many Southeast Asian governments expressed confusion during the last years of the Trump administration, especially after he seemingly neglected the region by not sending a senior official to the ASEAN summit in 2019.
- The Biden administration came to office stating that it intended to recalibrate from Central Asia and the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was part of this plan, except that it was very poorly executed.
- What matters most for Southeast Asian governments will be how quickly the United States moves to reinforce the message that the Indo-Pacific lies at the heart of American foreign policy.
- Vice President of US, Kamala Harris has said that “US partnerships in Singapore, in Southeast Asia, and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for it”.
- It is the fact that Southeast Asia is a key area in USA’s rivalry with China.
- From the US perspective, it is unrealistic to leave Southeast Asia, with its geographical, economic, historical and social connections, which are now compounded by the competition with China
Southeast Asia wants the US and China to compete for their attention, but countries in the region resent being forced to choose [between the two]
Connecting the dots: