America in Southeast Asia: A Typhoon Scenario?

April 30, 2012 --

Asia, China, Philippines

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The aftermath of a terrorist attack in Thailand, more evidence of growing insecurity in the region. Image from Huffington Post.

Largely forgotten in the media, America has been engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom in the Philippines since 2002.  While the mission has been one primarily of training and supplying the Filipino military, it is currently unclear how long the mission will continue; given the increased emphasis of U.S. influence in the region, it would seem that the mission will continue for at least a few more years.

While overall the mission seems to have a been a great success, recent news reports have indicated that a high value target, a Mr. Zulkifli bin Hir who was reportedly killed by the Filipino government in a February air strike,  is believed to be still alive in Malaysia, though this has yet to be officially verified.   Mr. Zulkifli has links to Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyf, both of which are of major concern to U.S. national interests in Southeast Asia.  The uncertainty surrounding the death of Mr. Zulkifli and the recent, highly coordinated terrorist attack in Thailand by suspected Muslim insurgents raises questions about the regional stability of Southeast Asia.

While many of the governments in the region are currently on friendly or amenable terms with the United States, many of these governments are also battling local unrest and insurgency.  Mix this instability with the fact that the region is quickly becoming a battle ground for influence between the U.S. and China, and the area could very quickly dissolve into a not-so-peaceful future.

With many of these countries experiencing growing unrest and increased violence, the United States may face more resistance than expected while attempting to establish stronger ties to this area in the coming years.  As the United States increases its presence both economically and militarily in Southeast Asia, it is possible that the United States and the many of the pro-U.S. governments will experience a strong and unfriendly blowback from the anti-government and terrorists groups that are currently operating across the region. This combination of elements could potentially ignite a nightmare scenario for the United States’ regional efforts.

Though we may not know the future, recent history may provide a glimpse into the possible outcomes. Southeast Asia has many of the same issues that lead to the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East. A quick look at the tensions surrounding Myanmar’s recent elections and the recent protests in Malaysia over elections and political reform shows that many of the same elements of the “Arab Spring” are present. Add to this a history of piracy, which, given the general success of Somali pirates in receiving ransom payments, may lead to an increase in this activity for the region as well. While it may be appealing to avoid any active role in settling regional conflicts, the absence of influence by the United States leaves a power gap in the region that may be filled by others, most of which are less than friendly to the United States.  China is currently increasing its presence all over the world, including in Southeast Asia, though less successfully; even Iran, through its state-sponsored terrorism, has made its presence known in the region.

With these variables in the equation, it is easy to see that the United States’ ability to increase regional influence will be much more difficult than floating a few more warships in the area or signing trade agreements. While these options may work in the short term, they may generate negative attitudes towards the United States among the population, which  could easily be exploited by opposition and terrorists groups.

Given the uneasy future of the area, the United States should act quickly to determine responses for each possible outcome.  Given the complexity and range of interests that would be threatened in the case of widespread violence and instability, the United States needs to quickly push for peaceful resolutions wherever possible. Diplomatic engagement should involve settling grievances between governments and anti-government groups within the region, and where there are legitimate terrorist threats, the United States should consider military engagement similar to that which has been done in the Philippines.

Only by taking these proactive measures now can the United States increase the possibility of successful long term stability sooner rather than later in this area of increasing importance to U.S. national interests. Because China is currently a less favorable partner in the region, as can be seen in its recent conflict with the Filipino navy, the United States and its allies should move quickly to build strong diplomatic relations that will lead to peace and prosperity for the region, before China or other less amenable nations gain a larger influence in the region.

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