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Is Obama’s Historic Laos Visit Enough to Curb an ASEAN Pivot To China?

Four years ago, President Barack Obama told Asia that his plan was to rebalance U.S. economic and military resources in the region. Although he wasn’t the first American head of state to make that pledge, leaders in Southeast Asia welcomed the pivot, as they desired access to the U.S. market and help in resisting China’s maritime expansion.

On a recent trip back to Asia, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to step foot in the nation of Laos, opening a three-day visit planned to rebuild trust in the decades of shared history between the two countries. The September 6-8 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) event in Laos, though, may be remembered as more of a pivot to China.

Obama’s late-season list of pro-Asia achievements include the following:

  • Lifting the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam
  • Helping train troops in the Philippines (since 2014)
  • Spearheading the creation of the 12-member nation Trans Pacific Partnership
  • Increasing security cooperation with Japan designed to resist China’s maritime expansion

All the while, China is rapidly building its regional credentials with a focus on Southeast Asia’s economy. Since recently losing a world arbitration court ruling against its claim on most of the South China Sea, Beijing has indicated a willingness to work with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other rival Asian claimants about next steps.

Senior vice president of business advisory firm Park Strategies Sean King says that much of Southeast Asia is tilting toward China and that the trend is a natural shift and the United States will be back eventually. “Cambodia and Laos are already in China’s camp, Thailand’s tilting that way, and the Philippines is at least listening to offers from Beijing. The world doesn’t stop for U.S. elections, and I expect diplomacy to continue throughout our own election cycle,” says Sean King.

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