A central theme of US policy towards Asia during 2012 has been the strengthening of America's military deployments, political relationships and economic partnerships in Southeast Asia. It is evident that China's growing power and assertiveness have provided an important stimulus for renewed US policy activism in a sub-region towards which some observers had detected neglect by Washington over the previous decade. But while Southeast Asian states may take advantage of renewed American interest to hedge against China's rise, most of them will keep their strategic options open.
Against the backdrop of severe financial constraints, the impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and substantial reductions in American troops in Europe, the Pentagon's Defense Strategic Guidance document in January talked of 'pivoting' US national security efforts towards Asia, seen as the increasingly important locus of US strategic and economic interests. However, within months, US officials – such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he spoke at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June – were avoiding this terminology, which did not highlight the strong sense of long-term commitment that Washington wished to convey. Instead, they spoke of a 'rebalance' to the Asia-Pacific. According to Panetta, 'as part of this rebalancing effort we are … strengthening our presence in Southeast Asia and in the Indian Ocean region'. In addition to rotating US marines and supporting aviation units through northern Australia, the US would deepen its strategic cooperation with Thailand; pursue 'mutually beneficial capability enhancements' with the Philippines, while working to improve its 'maritime presence'; forward-deploy littoral combat ships (LCS) to Singapore; and enhance security partnerships with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam.