‘A region of minor importance to US foreign policy’, ‘Washington’s deputy sheriffs’, or ‘the second front in the war on terror’ — these are often-heard references to Southeast Asia’s relevance in the American perspective. Is it correct to describe US approaches to the region as an exhibition of ‘varying degrees of benign neglect, with episodic attention to perceived security threats’ (Mauzy and Job, 2007: 622)? Has Southeast Asia ‘faded from the radar screen of the USA as it has not been central to the new agenda of neoliberal globalization’ (Robison, 2006: 62–3)? Can the American involvement in Southeast Asia be characterized as ‘ambivalent, even erratic’ (Acharya and Tan, 2006: 39)? Or are those observers right who stress the prime strategic importance of Southeast Asia due to the simple fact that the US enjoys almost unrestricted access to the region? As Evelyn Goh and Sheldon W. Simon put it, ‘Washington is seen as the “least distrusted power” in Southeast Asia with no territorial or other ambitions directly at odds with ASEAN states’ interests’ (2008: 7). The question is not does Southeast Asia matter to the United States but how does it matter.
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