Obama’s 2015 national security strategy: what does it mean for SE Asia and Vietnam?

Obama’s 2015 national security strategy: what does it mean for SE Asia and Vietnam?

Editor's Note: Dr. Terry F. Buss is a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration. He wrote this article exclusively for Tuoi Tre News.

On February 6, 2015, President Obama released his National Security Strategy (NSS) that serves as U.S. policy for the remaining two years of his presidency.

NSS is supposed to set priorities to guide funding and resourcing decisions and to ensure that security, intelligence, defense and humanitarian functions are widely understood and properly coordinated. In the past, foreign governments, international organizations, and terrorists alike, have eagerly anticipated NSS to see where U.S. efforts will be focused.

In spite of its importance, the 2015 NSS was dead on arrival. There was very little commentary on NSS from opponents and advocates of the Obama Administration. NSS was supposed to be released in early 2014, but was delayed because of unanticipated Islamic State military advances in Syria and Iraq. On August 29, 2014, President Obama made a huge mistake in a press conference where he admitted that his Administration had no Middle East strategy.

But the long-awaited 2015 NSS turned out to be no strategy at all. Rather it is just 29 pages of hundreds of disparate goals without prioritization or analysis. Critics suggest that it reads more like a campaign speech than an official strategy document. For example, it mentions protecting the “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community” twice but says nothing about Yemen and Libya, two recent significant strategic failures of U.S. policy. Likewise, it focuses on climate change, natural disaster, health and poverty reduction while remaining silent on other security issues like terrorism in Nigeria.

Nonetheless, NSS gives important insights into how the Obama Administration views security issues generally and how it will address some issues of concern to Southeast Asia and Vietnam.

Obama’s security doctrine

NSS clarifies the Administration’s notion of U.S. leadership in addressing security issues globally, mentioning leadership 100 times in the short document. The Administration reaffirms its intent to pursue its “soft power” approach in international affairs even in the face of numerous policy failures, not only in the Middle East but also with Russia, Ukraine and North Korea.

This means the U.S. will continue to engage with friends and opponents trying to reach common ground and accommodation. It will do so through collaborative, multilateral organizations like the United Nations and through coalitions of supportive nations. It will “lead from behind,” preferring that those most affected events should take a leading role with U.S. support.

NSS encapsulated the Obama Doctrine as leading with “strategic patience and persistence.” This means that the U.S. will not act hastily or rashly, but will wait “as long as it takes” to see what the best course of action will be. The U.S. response to the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State advances in Iraq offer examples.

NSS also reaffirms the notion of proportionality. The U.S. prefers “measured” responses to change opponent behavior. Gradually sanctioning the Russian economy to influence its behavior, rather than comprehensively overwhelming it, will be the preferred approach.

Finally, the NSS relies on a rule-based approach in which the international community follows international laws, treaties and agreements.

Critics point out that the NSS is silent on how to deal with those who do not follow the rules, do not compromise and move quickly without restraint. Islamic extremist incursions into Yemen and Libya are examples.

Of major concern is NSS makes clear that the U.S. military will continue to be reduced in size to all time lows, while being asked to undertake ever more missions. NSS claims that the use of soft diplomacy above and a heavy reliance on technology, especially for reconnaissance and intelligence will make up for “draw downs.”

Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and security

Perhaps one of the most important statements in the NSS pertains to Vietnam (as well as Indonesia and Malaysia). The U.S. considers Vietnam to be an important partner with respect to “security, development and democracy.” Even though NSS is silent on what this means for Vietnam-U.S. security; just the fact that Vietnam is mentioned is an important indicator of the significance of the relationship.

NSS explicitly states that the U.S. will continue to work through regional organizations, especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asian Summit, and Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Working with these regional organizations shows a continued commitment to the so-called “Asian Pivot” or “Rebalance” of U.S. interest toward the region.

Critics are quick to note that these regional organizations also serve as important venues for Chinese and Russian interests, something that may be problematic for U.S. policy. The Chinese, for example, are promoting their own competing regional trade agreements. Critics also point out that the Administration in the past has planned to focus on SE Asia only to be distracted by other regions, including the Middle East.

Emphasis on regional organizations in addition to renewed U.S. leadership on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)—that liberalizes trade and standardizes trading rules/policies—raises hopes that countries in the region will mutually benefit.

Unfortunately, the U.S. must gain approval from Congress to hold up its end of the bargain on trade with countries in the region. The Congress has yet to approve the Trade Promotion Authority, allowing the Administration to fast track trade agreements with minimal congressional interference. It is not clear whether Obama can gain this authorization.

Disputed islands

Working through regional organizations is good for trade, but not for security. Regional associations have not contributed to the resolution of disputes over Chinese incursions on islands in the East Sea, an issue greatly affecting Vietnamese national sovereignty.

NSS suggests that the maritime “standoff” between China and Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia might best be handled by getting the Chinese Government to resolve differences through the ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea to which it is a signatory. NSS calls on the Chinese Government to also abide by international law and widely accepted rules for behavior.

NSS commits the U.S. to monitoring Chinese Government compliance, but will not take a stand on disputed maritime sovereignty issues. The U.S. has not yet made much over China’s development of uninhabited reef areas to be used for military bases. NSS places more emphasis on the recent climate change agreement between China and the U.S., than security issues.

NSS emphasizes that the U.S. is modernizing its mutual security agreements with Japan, South Korea and Philippines, but fails to say what this entails. Nonetheless, it is likely a very subtle message to the Chinese Government that the U.S. intends to influence the region by siding with traditional allies.

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