“America is Back”: Views From Southeast Asia
March 25th 2021 by Gregory Wiatrek, Winston Michalak, and Elina Noor
On February 4, 2021, President Joseph Biden announced to both the American people and the world that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” In contrast to his predecessor’s notion of “America First”, President Biden sought to assure world leaders of the United States’ recommitment to multilateralism and renewed engagement on the world stage.
After four years of President Trump, and with many diplomatic tensions unresolved from the Obama era, can the Biden administration successfully return the United States to an active and engaged partner to Southeast Asian countries? The coup in Myanmar; China’s growing diplomatic, economic, and technological influence; and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remain pressing issues for Southeast Asia. Questions regarding ASEAN’s centrality to regional stability and America’s absence from the Indo-Pacific’s multilateral trade landscape create additional uncertainties the Biden administration will have to navigate moving forward.
On March 16, 2021 the Asia Society Policy Institute convened a public panel, “’America is Back: Views from Southeast Asia” to explore the future of Southeast Asia’s relations with the United States under the Biden administration as well as how partners like Japan can collaboratively enhance a rules-based architecture for the region’s peace, security, stability, and prosperity. The event featured:
- Shafiah Muhibat, Senior Researcher and Head of the Department of International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia.
- Pich Charadine, Deputy Executive Director at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in charge of Research, Training and Publication.
- Aries Arugay, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Research, Extension, and Publications in the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy from the University of the Philippines in Diliman (UP).
- Thuy T. Do, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, currently posted at Vietnam’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, World Trade Organization and other international organizations in Geneva.
- Kei Koga, Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
ASPI Director of Political-Security Affairs Elina Noor moderated the virtual conversation.
The following questions were discussed among the panelists:
- What political, security, and defense expectations do Southeast Asian policy leaders have for the first year of the Biden administration?
- What realistic courses of action to refresh relations can be taken against the twin backdrops of a global economic downturn and a lingering pandemic?
- What practical steps can be taken to strengthen the ASEAN-US strategic partnership?
- How can partners such as Japan collaboratively enhance a rules-based architecture for the region’s peace, security, stability, and prosperity?
U.S. Interests in the Region
The primary focus for the United States, both in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia, remains an emphasis on upholding international law, a rules-based order (“a free and open Indo-Pacific"), maintaining support for democratic institutions, and highlighting the importance of human rights. Throughout his campaign and in his first hundred days, President Biden has used these guiding principles to approach the complex security landscape of Southeast Asia. Examples provided by panelists included the relatively quick use of sanctions against the Myanmar military and the recent Quad meeting, where all four heads of government attended. Biden, despite his desire to distance himself from many of his predecessor’s policies, continues to see China as America’s chief rival in Asia with a growing regional influence that the United States intends to counter.
Southeast Asia’s Needs
While some overlap remains, the needs of many Southeast Asian nations remain domestic and COVID-centric. Shafiah Muhibat listed Indonesia’s priorities as 1) health security, 2) economic recovery, 3) reinforcing protection systems for Indonesian abroad, 4) investment in regional issues, and 5) protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. Most Southeast Asian nations have similar primary concerns. The importance of maintaining a balanced engagement with the United States and China remains a necessity.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists emphasized the geostrategic importance for the United States of keeping ASEAN at the center of Indo-Pacific policy decisions and initiatives. Indeed, ASEAN states want more of a say in the framing of the Indo-Pacific when it comes to U.S involvement in the region.
One of the US’ key points of interest in Southeast Asia is China’s increased regional influence and aggression, especially in the South China Sea. As noted by the panel, ASEAN states largely expect the United States to focus on China’s military expansion in the region but not at the expense of their own security. Shafiah pointed out that, for Indonesia, the worst-case scenario would see the United States triggering increased Chinese military presence in the region but then being distracted by other foreign policy issues elsewhere. On the other hand, the best-case scenario “would be for the US to have more coordination with partners in the region.”
While the United States seeks to constrain China, Southeast Asian nations primarily want to ensure that their flexibility in regional engagements endures despite great power competition. This flexibility increases the central importance of ASEAN in regional stability. What Southeast Asian nations need from the United States is an affirmation that both ASEAN and its member states matter. “There is a lot of mistrust between nations and everyone feels they are being left behind by Korea, Japan, and others,” noted Shafiah. Pointing out the gap between an inclusive system and an alliance-based order that Biden has emphasized, Shafiah suggested “more high-level visits from US officials and more DOD interest in Southeast Asia” as opposed to an over-focus on China and India.” Other panelists concurred with these sentiments.
Optimism with Asterisks
Despite this divide, greater cooperation between the United States and Southeast Asian nations remains mutually beneficial. Cambodian-American relations remain “strained,” but as Pich Charadine explained, tensions do not mean an absence of mutual trust and common interest between the two countries. The United States has continued to perform well in winning “the heart of the people” with investments in Cambodian education, law enforcement, and public health. The United States recently provided over 20 million COVID-19 vaccines to Cambodia.
Despite their differences, both the United States and the Philippines view each other as important allies in the Pacific. Aries Arugay highlighted that although President Rodrigo Duterte himself has continually shown a hesitation to fully cooperate with the United States, the Filipino military bureaucracy remains in constant communication with their American counterparts. China’s incursions in the South China Sea have also compelled both partners to depend on each other in spite of Duterte’s increasingly inward defense focus. Counter-insurgency and terrorism are the Philippines ' highest priority.
President Trump emphasized the importance of the US-Vietnam relationship during his years in office. As Thuy Do highlighted, Vietnam is now the 10th largest trading partner of the United States. Biden’s Interim National Security Strategy further cemented Vietnam's importance in countering China and in the coming years, Vietnam may play an increasingly active role as a partner of the Quad.
Challenges of Refreshing Relations
Yet despite the optimism, most of the panelists cited numerous issues the Biden administration will need to navigate, namely the distrust that many Southeast Asian nations still harbor towards the United States. Part of this wariness stems from the divide mentioned above. The strain between the United States and Cambodia has led both to "a crossroads and a critical point” in their relationship. The Cambodian government has not forgotten American actions taken during the Vietnam War, nor has it been welcoming of Washington’s “reductionist view” regarding the nation’s relationship with Beijing. Cambodia’s allowance of a Chinese naval base remains a large obstacle for meaningful dialogue, one Biden will likely struggle to overcome.
The Duterte government's continual threats to suspend the Visiting Forces Agreement unless the United States delivers 20 million COVID-19 vaccines only complicates ties between the two allies. Aries Arugay stated that the, “complicated” relationship President Rodrigo Duterte’s “toxic rhetoric” has created in the American-Filipino alliance means that the upcoming anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty will be underpinned by a more awkward rather than celebratory tone. Duterte’s posture will make it more difficult, but not impossible, for Biden to counter China, Arugay posited. “Duterte will not welcome a Biden administration as much as a Trump second term. Trump and Duterte had a more cordial relationship, since Trump did not intervene or criticize how he ran the country.” Biden’s campaign promise to prioritize human rights may lead to increased diplomatic conflict between the two nations. “Even Vietnam, with its strong relationship with Washington, still feels slighted by Trump’s accusation of Vietnam as a currency manipulator and the continual accusation of human rights violations.”
Thuy Do echoed this by stating that the US’ charges of Vietnam’s human rights abuses and currency manipulation remain a stumbling point between the two states.
Japan’s Collaborative Role
While not in Southeast Asia, Japan is uniquely positioned and plays an important role in the region, according to Kei Koga. In effect, Japan wants to empower Southeast Asia to have geopolitical resilience and strength in order to prevent the region from being “divided by the great power competition” between the United States and China. Koga gave several examples of initiatives that Japan has undertaken to support ASEAN states in the fields of security, defense, economics, and infrastructure. Because of this and because of its close relationship with the United States, Japan is well-situated to play a bridging role between ASEAN and the United States. The Quad Security Dialogue presents a promising platform for this purpose, especially since the Quad has produced statements that demonstrate respect for ASEAN centrality in Indo-Pacific policy-making and since the Quad is open to interacting with and receiving feedback from ASEAN and APEC member states.
There are, however, limits and challenges to Japan’s collaborative role in US-ASEAN relations that have to be overcome before Japan can fully leverage its diplomatic potential in Southeast Asia. “First, Biden is going to put more emphasis on democratic values and human rights. ASEAN wants to encourage human rights but does not want to put pressure on its member states. Japan wants to support the ASEAN approach, but Japan still values democratic governance and human rights. The second challenge is the institutional arrangement of the Quad. It is clear that the US is going to put more emphasis on its allies and partners. This is understandable, but it’s also important for the US to look beyond its allies” and form diplomatic ties with other regional players. Furthermore, despite the Quad’s acknowledgment of ASEAN centrality in Indo-Pacific policy-making, it is not clear how — if at all — ASEAN centrality is defined by the Quad, individually, and as a whole.