November saw developments that could result in Southeast Asia becoming a more prominent issue in domestic U.S. politics in 2015 and 2016. Southeast Asia normally is not an issue in domestic American politics. Indeed, one could say that the last time Southeast Asia was a major domestic political issue in America was during the Vietnam War forty years ago.
This is because, with a couple of major exceptions, Southeast Asian countries do not have major diasporas in the United States, unlike, say, Australia or even Canada. The two major exceptions are the Philippines and Vietnam, but Filipino-Americans have tended to focus more on domestic American politics (such as the current immigration debate) and a large (but declining) portion of Vietnamese-Americans are opposed to the current government in Vietnam. Hence the diaspora politics seen in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities in the United States are not as pronounced in the Southeast Asian communities.
However, the impending takeover of the U.S. Senate and increased majority in the U.S. House of Representatives by the Republican party means increased leverage by the opposition over the last two years of the Obama Administration. The presidential election in 2016 (along with another Congressional election) and the presumed candidacy of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also means that foreign policy issues may become more prominent over the next two years. That possibly includes Southeast Asia:
South China Sea – although little understood by the general American public, increased tensions and/or a major incident in the South China Sea could bring this issue to the forefront. The dispute could even motivate the Vietnamese and Filipino communities to be more active publicly. For example, anti-China protests took place earlier this spring in Vietnamese-American communities when the Chinese oil platform was moved into the South China Sea.
Myanmar – the Obama Administration has touted the political and economic reform process in Myanmar as a major diplomatic success. However, stalling or backtracking in that process could attract criticism from both parties. Senate Republican (and imminent majority) leader Mitch McConnell has historically paid much attention to the U.S. government’s Burma policy, particularly on religious issues. Former Senator Jim Webb has announced that he will run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and feels that he was not given proper credit by the Obama Administration (and in particular Hillary Clinton) for initiating the rapprochement with the Myanmar regime.
Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – we are coming to the end of 2014 with neither a completed TPP deal nor the Trade Promotion Authority needed to finalize and pass such a deal. Nevertheless, we could be seeing the endgame for the TPP negotiations, which will start the major political debate on the trade agreement. Even non-trade issues related to the four Southeast Asian countries signed up to TPP could come up, such as the implementation of sharia law in Brunei.
Finally there remain the ever-present U.S. concerns about China, which can overflow to Southeast Asia. Many in Washington are convinced that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a Chinese ploy against the TPP (even though RCEP was largely proposed by the Japanese). Earlier this year I sat through a U.S. government trade hearing on pipe from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, listening to a U.S. congressman protesting about unfair trade from China (and claiming undue Chinese influence on the three countries, even though that same week Vietnamese workers were rioting against Chinese-owned companies due to the Chinese oil platform in the South China Sea).
In any event, foreign policy usually takes a backseat to domestic political concerns in the United States, unless there is a major crisis abroad. I would expect this to remain the case in 2015 and 2016. Nevertheless, at a time where Asia means more to the United States, events in Southeast Asia could inject the region into domestic American politics.