The 2011 rotation and storage agreement with Australia and the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines are two of the most visible manifestations of the security side of President Obama’s rebalance to Asia and the USA’s greater focus on Southeast Asia. In the Philippines and Australia, this tightening of already close alliance relations is very much in step with public opinion, yet it received a mixed reception from the host state political elites and commentariats.
Interestingly, Singapore’s agreement to host up to four Pacific Command littoral combat ships did not elicit a similar response.
In Australia, a former Liberal and a former Labor prime minister, Fraser and Keating respectively, and former Labor Party leader Latham, were highly critical of the tone and focus of President Obama’s state visit to Australia. Serving shadow communications minister Turnbull, stepping outside his portfolio and current Liberal Party policy, offered more moderate criticism. These political leaders were united in their concern over China’s reaction to the agreement and its potential fallout for Australia-China relations. All four seemed trapped in the long-standing and false Australian dichotomy that closer security ties with the United States undermines Australia’s Asian engagement project and closer relations with China. Australian public opinion was much more robust in its support for closer security ties with the United States and more wary of China’s growing influence. In 2012, 74% of Australians polled by the Lowy Institute favoured the rotation of Marines through Darwin against 22% who did not. A majority favoured a larger rotation even if China publicly opposed such a move.
Philippine popular support for strong bilateral security ties with the United States even passes this high Australian watermark. In a 2013 Pew Research polling, the Philippines had the most favourable view of the United States at 85% of the 38 countries polled, even eclipsing Israel at 83%. Only 22% of Filipinos polled believed that China had replaced or will replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, the lowest score among the 38 polled. In the latest Social Weather Station poll in the Philippines, 85% of Filipinos expressed much trust in the United States versus only 6% expressing distrust. Yet, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was greeted with a flurry of critical opinion pieces in the country’s broadsheet media and sniping from former legislators. President Aquino ensured that the agreement was crafted cautiously to evade the need for Senate approval. Opponents to the Agreement rallied around the nationalist argument that the Agreement unjustifiably violates Philippine sovereignty and echoes the past US colonial mastery over the Philippines.
The general support for the United States among the populations of US allies and security partners in Southeast Asia amounts to local backing for the rebalance. For future rebalancing agreements, the involved governments can either ignore the likely mixed elite reaction or promote beforehand the strong popular support for a continued US presence in the region to counteract it.
Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. He can be contacted at email@example.com.