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 in Southeast Asia the USA is catching up again. And there is a lot to relax. The past four years have seen Washington’s dwindling diplomatic and political capital in the region.
The United States does not have a significant regional initiative. It has excluded itself from two economic groupings: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific 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 Philippines) operate without an ambassador, and the United States is the only major 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 burden – which explains why Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy, never visited Trump at the White House. US support to 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 while pushing back opponents. The guidelines are being recalibrated across the board.
ASEAN countries would certainly welcome robust US engagement in the region – but in the right way.
First, they do not want to see intensified rivalry between the US and China in Southeast Asia, a region that has historically been and could well be the site of conflict between great powers. The ASEAN countries do not want to be polarized, drawn in different directions by different powers and undermined the cohesion of the ASEAN community. 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 US and China. They all want to benefit from both powers. They believe that Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific offer ample room for the engagement of both superpowers. As a result, ASEAN does not want a repeat of the aggressive anti-China talk that former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has 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. But while the bipartisan view in Washington sees China as a threat to longstanding US 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 particularly interested in China’s political system, mainly because of the principle of non-interference, but also because it simply has no interest in China’s domestic politics.
Not a single ASEAN country has reiterated 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, which is 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, uniting an increasingly cohesive group of nations, should take matters into its own hands in the region. The centrality of ASEAN requires that the great powers have strategic confidence in ASEAN and are willing to let the organization take the lead on 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. For this reason, ASEAN does not want to choose either side and does not want to be put under pressure to do so. Choosing one side automatically means alienating the other. This repositions ASEAN from the center of complex relationships.
ASEAN noted with curiosity that Biden’s first foreign policy move in Asia was to convene the quadrilateral meeting of the United States, Australia, Japan and India – and make it a senior executive summit. While Quad leaders strongly advocated the centrality of ASEAN, questions are being asked within ASEAN about the Quad’s strategic goals and whether actions are being taken that are incompatible with ASEAN’s goals. To this day, the relationship between ASEAN and the Quad remains fluid, unclear and uncertain.
The quad also inevitably begs the question of whether Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be different from Trump’s. Beijing was not entirely wrong in suspecting that the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific policies contained anti-Chinese biases.
The Biden government should convincingly demonstrate that its Indo-Pacific vision – yes, its strategy for Asia – does not aim to marginalize or even contain any resident power. It is a good sign that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is increasingly using the phrase “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 in.
After all, the Southeast Asians want the US and China to work together in their region. A few years ago, Xi called for a “new kind of great power relationship” with the US based on “win-win solutions”. Biden has confirmed that his administration wants “competition, not 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, collaborative when it can”.
Given these words of encouragement, can both sides overcome their strategic ego and start exploring ways to work together? Can Southeast Asia be the place where there is concrete cooperation between the US and China? After all, this is a region where a long list of seemingly persistent conflicts has turned into 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 turn into friendship.
There is no shortage of topics for Washington and Beijing to explore collaboration: industry, infrastructure, maritime security, piracy, climate, environment, green energy, natural disasters, COVID-19, youth exchanges and so on. While this won’t change their rivalry on a global scale, it could only change the structure of US-China relations in Southeast Asia. That would be good enough for ASEAN. It really depends on whether there is the political will and the diplomatic ruse to do so.
This article is published in cooperation with the Asian Peace Program at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore.