An expert's point of view on a current event.
May 30, 2021, 9:00 p.m.
"America is back," US President Joe Biden announced to the world – but the US is catching up again in Southeast Asia. And there is a lot to relax. Washington's diplomatic and political capital in the region has been dwindling over the past four years.
The United States has no significant regional initiative. It has excluded itself from two economic groups: the regional comprehensive economic partnership and the comprehensive and progressive agreement on the transpacific partnership. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump attended a special summit in Manila between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but missed all four meetings of the East Asia Summit during his tenure. US embassies in four ASEAN countries (Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines) have worked without an ambassador, and the United States is the only large country that does not have a permanent representative in the ASEAN Secretariat. In the Philippines and Indonesia, getting too close to Trump was seen as a political obligation – which explains why Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of Southeast Asia's largest economy, never visited Trump at the White House. US support for the region during the COVID-19 crisis has been modest at best.
The Biden administration is now taking steps to reverse course, repair the damage and restore US credibility. His first step in foreign policy, Biden said, is to win back allies and partners and drive back opponents. Policies are being recalibrated across the board.
ASEAN countries would certainly welcome a robust US engagement in the region – but in the right way.
First, they do not want to see increased rivalry between the US and China in Southeast Asia, a region that has historically been and could well be a cockpit of conflict between great powers. The ASEAN countries do not want to be polarized, to be pulled in different directions by different powers and to see the cohesion of the ASEAN community being undermined. ASEAN hopes the Biden administration will lower the temperature, tone and tension in US-China relations and keep the rivalry manageable.
Second, it is in the national interest of ASEAN countries to maintain good relations with both the United States and China. They all want to take advantage of both powers. They believe that Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific offer sufficient scope for engagement for both superpowers. Therefore, ASEAN countries do not want to see a repeat of the aggressive anti-China abuse that former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uttered in his final months in office.
Indeed, Southeast Asia's view of China is different from that of the United States. While ASEAN members are rightly concerned about China's moves in the South China Sea, they have also recognized that China will be a huge part of their future – bilaterally and regionally. Of course, they have no illusions about their relationship with China, which will be complex and challenging. While the bipartisan view in Washington sees China as a threat to America's longstanding supremacy, Southeast Asians generally accept China as an important partner in their development plans.
Southeast Asians hear the alarm from the Biden government about the danger posed to democracy by autocracy and refer specifically to China. The reality on the ground, however, is that no Southeast Asian country is paying particular attention to China's political system, mainly due to the principle of non-interference, but also because it simply has no interest in China's domestic politics.
Not a single ASEAN country has confirmed the US State Department's claim that China is committing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Not a single Southeast Asian country – not even Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world – regards China as an ideological enemy.
In fact, ASEAN leaders would sympathize with the statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping that every country has the right to choose its own path of development, as this is practiced in ASEAN itself.
Third, the Southeast Asian countries do not want to see the erosion of ASEAN centrality – the principle that ASEAN, which unites an increasingly cohesive group of nations, should take responsibility for affairs in the region. The centrality of ASEAN presupposes that the great powers have a strategic confidence in ASEAN and are ready to let the organization lead in some aspects of regional affairs. ASEAN's credibility depends on its ability to maintain good relations with all major powers: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, the European Union, and India. Because of this, ASEAN does not want to choose sides and does not want to be forced to do so. Choosing one side automatically means that you are alienating the other side. This positions ASEAN away from the center of complex relationships.
The ASEAN countries were curious to note that Biden's first foreign policy move in Asia was to convene the quadrilateral meeting of the United States, Australia, Japan and India – and elevate it to a senior executive summit. While the Quad executives strongly advocated ASEAN centrality, questions are asked within ASEAN about the strategic goal of the Quad and whether measures are being taken that may not be compatible with the goals of ASEAN. To date, the relationship between ASEAN and Quad is fluid, unclear and uncertain.
The Quad also inevitably raises questions about whether Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy is different from Trump's. Beijing was not entirely wrong in speculating that the Trump administration's policies in the area of the free and open Indo-Pacific contained an anti-China tendency.
The Biden government should convincingly demonstrate that its Indo-Pacific vision – indeed its strategy for Asia – is not intended to marginalize, let alone contain, a resident power. It is a good sign that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has increasingly used the expression “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” – “inclusive” is a code word in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific to keep the door open for China to come .
After all, Southeast Asians want the United States and China to work together in their region. A few years ago, Xi called for a "new kind of great power relationship" with the United States based on "win-win solutions". Biden has confirmed that his administration wants "competition rather than conflict" with China and is "ready to work with Beijing if it is in America's interests." Blinken also said US-China relations "will be competitive when it should, cooperative when it can".
In the face of these encouraging words, can either side overcome their strategic ego and look for ways to work together? Can Southeast Asia be the place where there is concrete cooperation between the US and China? This is, after all, a region where a long list of seemingly insoluble conflicts has become permanent cooperation: between Indonesia and Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia and Timor-Leste, Malaysia and the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia – The list goes on. Countries in this region have shown that enmity can be turned into friendship.
There is no shortage of topics for Washington and Beijing to explore industrial, infrastructure, maritime security, piracy, climate, environment, green energy, natural disasters, COVID-19, youth exchanges, etc. collaborations. While this will not change their rivalry on a global scale, it could change the structure of US-China relations in Southeast Asia. That would be good enough for ASEAN. It really depends on whether there is political will and diplomatic ruse to do so.
This paper was published in collaboration with the Asian Peace Program at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore.