The United States and Southeast Asia in a COVID-19 World: A New Start
As President-elect Joe Biden maps out his transition plan, Southeast Asia probably won’t be high on an agenda littered with urgent challenges.
But the Biden team shouldn’t let other matters crowd out Southeast Asia for too long.
Many Southeast Asian decision makers see the United States as disengaging from the strategically vital crossroads of Asia and rapidly losing ground to China.
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely reinforce gains in China’s relative influence. Southeast Asian leaders are focussed above all other priorities on economic recovery and look to China to drive growth.
And while Southeast Asian governments worry quietly about China’s growing sway, most worry even more about U.S.-China strategic rivalry.
The incoming Biden Administration faces these constraining realities. Shoring up America’s political and economic influence won’t happen overnight.
Still, however careful their public remarks, Southeast Asian governments don’t want to be left on their own with China. A reinvigorated U.S. diplomatic strategy, one that encompasses competition with China while valuing Southeast Asian partnerships in their own right, would be welcomed across the region.
Working better with the grain of the region is essential. Washington understandably wants to win Southeast Asia to its side in the contest for influence with China. But with most of Southeast Asia clinging determinedly to strategic autonomy, a more realistic strategy–at least for now–is to help the region stay safely anchored in the middle.
The View from the Region
Views of the United States in Southeast Asia are as diverse as one would expect in a region in which Cambodia, at one end of the spectrum, has tied itself ever more closely to China and Vietnam, at the other, sees its relationship with Washington as essential to counter a more aggressive and unilateral China.
Even so, recent polling of regional elites from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) paint–to quote CSIS–“a picture of clearly ascendant Chinese influence”.
The CSIS survey found that China is viewed as “much more influential” than the United States in terms of economic power and influence. Regional elites see this gap continuing to grow in China’s favor. In the ISEAS survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents see China as the most economically influential country in the region.
The ISEAS survey also showed a decline in perceptions of the United States as the region’s most strategically influential country, from 30.5 percent in 2019 to 26.7 percent in 2020. And strong majorities in both the 2020 and 2019 ISEAs surveys believed US engagement with Southeast Asia was declining under the Trump Administration.
Southeast Asia gets sustained (if largely self-interested) attention from Beijing. China has the advantage of geographic proximity. It is building ever deeper connections with the region through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) road, rail, port, and digital infrastructure investments.
Southeast Asia is deeply integrated into China-centered value chains, both for inputs and final products. Pre-COVID, Chinese investment flows into Southeast Asia were growing rapidly and China was the region’s largest source of tourists and a major supplier of labor.
The United States has long-standing and significant investment and trade links to Southeast Asia. But when Southeast Asian governments think about future opportunities, they tend to look to China, especially as they seek to rescue economies damaged by COVID-19.
The International Monetary Fund expects Southeast Asia’s economy to decline by 3.4 percent in 2020. Poverty is rising. Unemployment and underemployment have increased, especially in the large informal sector. Many small businesses will never re-open.
A bounce-back is forecast for 2021, but recovery won’t be even across the region and the downside risks will remain considerable well into the future.
Getting Southeast Asia Right
China’s natural advantages in Southeast Asia mean the United States must be playing its best game in the region all the time– “America First” was far from this.
True, U.S. officials worked hard to put flesh on the bones of the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. The new International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) gives the US more financial firepower in the region, for example. The Trump Administration also sought to better leverage the power of America’s private sector, including through its Indo-Pacific Business Forum.
A new Mekong-U.S. Partnership is a welcome initiative. So, too, the Blue Dot Network to promote quality infrastructure. After a slow start, U.S. COVID-19 aid for Southeast Asia has been building steadily.
The Trump Administration’s decision to align declaratory policy on the South China Sea with the 2016 South China Sea arbitration ruling has helped re-focus attention on the illegitimacy of China’s sweeping maritime claims.
The United States also stepped up its maritime presence in Southeast Asia and is exercising more with like-minded countries (although some Southeast Asian countries worry about the risk of a U.S.-China clash). Support for regional coast guards has increased.
But too often these initiatives have been undercut by tone-deaf diplomacy and the contradictions, narrow self-interest and general chaos inherent in President Trump’s approach to the world. The result is an America seen as less reliable and less present.
Secretary of State Pompeo often has said that the United States is not asking Southeast Asia to take sides. But implicit–and sometimes explicit–in his remarks in Southeast Asian settings is his expectation that, ultimately, the region will, either because of “U.S. values” or China’s assertive authoritarianism (“don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people,” he said in meetings with ASEAN counterparts in September).
The region by and large is determinedly not buying into such binary framings, and especially not the US National Security Strategy’s encapsulation of a struggle between “those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies”.
The Trump Administration also appealed to Southeast Asia to “uphold the core principles of the regional order at a time when these principles are under renewed threat”. This should have been more promising territory, especially given the emphasis on a “rules-based framework” in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
But the ASEAN Outlook was always about Southeast Asia asserting its centrality and putting its own stamp on the Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept, not finding convergences with the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific narrative. The Outlook document, for example, emphasizes a “central and strategic role” for ASEAN in an Indo-Pacific characterized by dialogue and cooperation “instead of rivalry”.
Like it or not, to rebuild influence, the incoming Biden Administration will have to work better with the grain of the region. This undoubtedly will produce its share of frustrations, given the caution of most Southeast Asian countries, the region’s anxiety about “ASEAN centrality” and the patchy performance of regional institutions.
Southeast Asia’s apparent confidence in its ability to manage a powerful China in the “ASEAN way” also sometimes looks more like an excuse for passivity in the face of Chinese unilateralism. The region is as capable of any other of being trapped by its own mythologies.
But what is the alternative? None, in truth. Southeast Asia puts so much effort into ASEAN and its internal cohesion because it believes, in the words of former Singaporean chief diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, that this helps preserve national autonomy in the midst of major power competition (“regional resilience enhances national resilience”).
Equally, U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia must encompass the reality of China’s economic pull. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks for the region when he says it “cannot afford to alienate China” and that “other Asian countries will try their best not to let any single dispute dominate their overall relationships with Beijing”.
Nor is there any point in expecting any Southeast Asian country to play an overt role in a balancing strategy against China. Southeast Asia will not be like North or South Asia, where Japan and India are regional poles in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.
It is unlikely even Vietnam–which does not want a Biden Administration to take too much pressure off China–will go this far. And the rest of the region worries more about sharp U.S.-China competition and being squashed between the two great powers than it does about China’s growing influence.
This mindset may be short-sighted, but it’s unlikely to change any time soon. Indeed, concern at growing U.S.-China tensions prompted an August out-of-session statement from ASEAN foreign ministers on the “importance of maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia and of “self-restraint”. “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry”, was Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi’s blunt explanation.
Where to Start?
Faced with these enduring realities, the objective of U.S. foreign policy should not be to win Southeast Asia to its side. Rather, it should be to keep ASEAN safely in the middle–that will be a big enough challenge in the coming years as China’s influence grows.
The United States needs a more consistent and intensive commitment to the region, one that values Southeast Asian nations for their own sake, not simply as chess pieces in the new great game.
Southeast Asia will understand that an incoming Biden Administration will have many pressing priorities, domestic and international. But it will nonetheless be looking for signs of intent and commitment. Here, there are some easy wins within reach.
The incoming Administration could issue an invitation (after the necessary diplomatic spadework) to ASEAN leaders to attend a special summit in the United States, as President Obama did in 2016.
The Administration could move to quickly fill the gaps in the United States’ diplomatic network in Southeast Asia. The Trump Administration left several ambassador posts unfilled, including the key Jakarta-based position of U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN.
Early in his term, the President could commit to attending the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2021. Southeast Asian leaders were quietly angered by President Trump sending National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to represent him at the 2019 EAS. The Administration was unrepentant, but the lack of respect this showed was the type of self-inflicted wound the United States can ill afford.
A new Biden Administration could respond to the needs of a region economically smashed by COVID-19. The United States could start by further ramping up aid for recovery. This is what Southeast Asia really wants and needs. To stand out, the Administration could focus on a particular sector or theme, like rebuilding the region’s human capital. A joint initiative with close partners like Japan and Australia could be designed.
The Administration could also get in the vaccines game, a field shamefully vacated by the Trump Administration while China continues a vigorous and effective round of “vaccine diplomacy”.
As President, Biden could make good on his promise to make U.S. vaccine technology available. His Administration could also make a substantial donation to Gavi’s COVID-19 Vaccines Advance Market Commitment (COVAX AMC), which will help developing countries obtain safe and effective vaccines.
Over the medium-term, a Biden Administration could work to fill the hole in the United States regional trade agenda caused by President Trump’s withdrawal from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
For better or worse, comprehensive regional arrangements like the CPTPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are more than just trade deals. To quote Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong again, the region sees them as “platforms that enable Asia-Pacific countries to cooperate with one another, develop stakes in one another’s success, and together mold the regional architecture and the rules that govern it”.
President-elect Biden has been clear that if the United States ever returns to the TPP, it won’t be in a hurry. But there are alternatives that could be more politically-palatable stepping stones, as the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Wendy Cutler recently explored. An interim sectoral agreement, for example, on digital trade or trade in medical products could get Washington quickly re-engaged on trade in the region without waiting for a politically complicated TPP decision.
A new Biden Administration could also better align its trade policy with its strategic objectives. Biden has said he will be tough on unfair trade practices, but the Trump Administration’s obsessive focus on trade deficits has unhelpfully put even the strongest of U.S. partners in the region – notably Vietnam – under pressure.
The Biden team needs to get the balance right in its democracy and human rights advocacy. President-elect Biden has put democracy promotion at the center of his foreign policy platform. Southeast Asia’s democratic regression and illiberal turn of past years is deeply entrenched. There is more the region’s democratic partners can and should do to support human rights and the rule of law and fight corruption. But the United States cannot afford to make values the primary driver of its engagement in Southeast Asia. Washington will need to find a way to work with countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam while still promoting its values. This is especially true at a time when the vulnerabilities and imperfections of America’s own democracy have been on display for so long.
If there is a silver lining for the United States in Southeast Asia it is that while China is needed it is not widely loved or trusted. Of those Southeast Asians who saw China as the most economically significant country in the 2020 ISEAS survey, nearly 80 percent were worried by this growing influence. Only 5.5 percent of respondents had any confidence China would uphold international law and rules-based order. Even fewer–only 1.5 percent–regarded China as a “benign and benevolent power”.
Southeast Asia does not want major power conflict, but nor does it want the United States to cede the region to China. A foreign policy better geared to the needs of Southeast Asia is not incompatible with advancing direct U.S. economic and security national interests, nor with tough competition with China. Indeed, a revamped U.S. diplomatic strategy for Southeast Asia will better support the region’s long-term resilience and sovereignty in an era of rising Chinese influence.
Richard Maude is Executive Director of Policy at Asia Society Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Asia Society Policy Institute.