Needless Entanglements: Washington’s Expanding Security Ties in Southeast Asia

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The end of the Cold War has reduced the dangerto the United States everywhere in the world,including Southeast Asia, but Washington hasn'tseemed to notice. Instead of reducingAmerica's commitments and force presence inSoutheast Asia, as would be appropriate, theClinton administration expanded the U.S. role.Washington added new agreements, trainingexercises, naval visits, weapons transfers, andimplicit security guarantees for nations such asAustralia, the Philippines, Singapore, and evenerstwhile adversary Vietnam. The Bush administrationseems determined to continue thatcourse.

There is little that the United States can do tomaintain stability in Southeast Asia. Cross-borderwars are not threatening to overwhelm theregion. If it is not willing to use U.S. forces, thereis little Washington can do to prevent such warsfrom breaking out in the first place. America'ssecurity interests in the region are modest, atbest, and do not warrant military intervention.Indeed, the region's most serious problemsare internal: ruthless repression in Burma, potential disintegration in Indonesia, political unrestin the Philippines. In such cases, a U.S. pressureis apt to prove ineffective at best and counter-productiveat worst.

The other concern is aggression from an outsidepower, namely China, but Beijing's ambitionsseem limited to the South China Sea. Eventhere, China has been only cautiously assertive;its greatest success has come as a result of disarrayamong its competitors. In particular, thePhilippines' lack of a serious military provides anopen invitation for Beijing to push its claims tothe Spratly Islands.

Instead of entangling itself in squabbles oflimited international significance, Washingtonshould encourage friendly states to better armthemselves and to create cooperative relationshipswith each other, for example, through theAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations and withreliable outside players, particularly India andJapan. The United States should adopt a lowermilitary profile in the region and abandonexpensive and risky commitments that no longerserve the interests of the American people.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato Institute).