The US role in Southeast Asia

The United States has appointed a high-ranking diplomat as the world’s first ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. First country out of the blocks to congratulate and welcome the appointment is Vietnam.

The appointment of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Marciel, which was then confirmed by the US Senate, was welcomed by the Asean General Secretary Surin Pitsuwan. He said the move was US recognition of Asean being the premier regional organisation in Southeast Asia.

Of course Marciel will concentrate on certain issues, and the current one at the top is Burma. There is some truth to the cynical view in Washington that Aung San Suu Kyi runs US policy towards Burma.

But the appointment should serve as a strong warning to those who think the United States is all burnt out in Asia, and that China is going to take over as leader of the region. China is big, growing and influential but is a long way away from replacing the US in regular geopolitical ways like economics and military might, let alone in subtle ways like diplomacy and human rights. Those lines of opportunity-seekers every morning are looking for visas at US embassies, not Chinese consulates.

Asean is pretty proud of itself at Washington’s move. The Thai secretary-general of the group, Surin Pitsuwan, is himself a US-educated PhD, and had only good things to say about the elevated US-Asean relations.

The impending appointment is “a manifestation of US recognition of the growing importance of Asean as a regional organisation,” a statement from the bloc’s Jakarta-based Secretariat said.

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