As great-power competition unfolds in Asia, each country in the region must adopt its own unique strategy to cope with this new, more intense and less conducive environment for co-operation. The calculations and choices each nation makes are determined by their geographical position, historical background, economic profile, and other factors, including the preferences of their leaders.
Notwithstanding Southeast Asia’s ample diversity, there are also a number of macro-trends and similarities in the region, including common reactions to great-power rivalry. There is general anxiety that the situation may spiral into confrontation. This would be highly undesirable for every Southeast Asian nation. They fear that the long-term and multifaceted rivalry between the US and China will pose challenges to regional growth, endangering the “Asian century” described by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.1 This would be particularly unhelpful in the post-pandemic period, where economic stimulus will be needed to overcome the Covid-19 stagnation. The region is uncomfortable with the pressure to take sides if US-China competition results in bifurcation, leaving limited room for a positive relationship with both powers.
Individual responses to these trends differ significantly among countries but there are also overarching shared goals. No Southeast Asian nation truly wants to be beholden to any great power. They want the ability to hedge to the degree possible and they are clinging to the hope that both the US and China are involved in the region only in positive terms, including economics, diplomacy, support for an ASEAN-centered architecture and benign security guarantees, perhaps even to the degree of not asking Southeast Asian countries to contribute to more than regular security exercises and dialogues. Important to the context of President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, most are indifferent to arguments about “democratic” values and “democracies versus autocracies;” this is an unpopular framing of the ideological competition. Only Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines out of ten ASEAN members were invited, and notwithstanding the selection criteria applied, the exclusion of the region’s majority is not a popular decision in the region. Notably absent are Singapore, a key security partner, Thailand, a treaty ally on paper, and Vietnam, once America’s adversary with which ideological differences lead to a bloody war but which has since reconciled to become an increasingly important partner in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam does not qualify as a democracy in any way, but that only confirms that picking partners based on their political inclinations, while rallying for solidarity against China, is not the most effective strategy.
This diverse region cannot afford a discriminatory approach, because that would prevent them gathering as a group in the first place. Fundamentally, Southeast Asians are pragmatic and will be interest-oriented rather than values-oriented. The great-power competition also offers some opportunities, and most see a level of benefit from controlled competition — providing public goods, investment and public diplomacy. This includes vaccine diplomacy, new pledges to support the region’s infrastructure funding or even supporting climate policies. Some in the region, such as Vietnam and Singapore, are savvier in their approach and are attempting to seize some potential opportunities.
These are similar trends among the 10 ASEAN nations, but the differences are in the details. Individual strategies are a matter of the pressure they feel from China and to what extent their national interests are being challenged. For example, Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are constantly challenged by China, hence Hanoi’s strategy will be tailored to these threats. Singapore, which has the highest trade-to-GDP ratio in the region, was one of the strongest critics of trade decoupling.
It is also fair to say that not all countries have ready strategies for the evolving great power competition. Most are muddling through and developing responses as Sino-US bilateral relations change. This is also related to the evolving nature of the countries themselves. Vietnam and Singapore are more outward-oriented in their security policies and display more astute strategic thinking because relative domestic stability allows them to do so. Thailand and Myanmar (and the three smaller countries in the region, Laos, Brunei and Cambodia) are more inward-looking. Domestic insecurities and power struggles in Thailand and Myanmar will continue to absorb their security priorities. Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia are at the intersection of both inward and outward security orientations. Their strategic weight, interests and maritime disputes require sufficient defense preparedness and orientation toward external threats. But mounting domestic issues, from power instability to leadership personalities (no deficit of these in the region) and election cycles will continue to direct their attention inward, particularly in the volatile post-pandemic period where political, economic and social structures are being stressed.
As such, Southeast Asian reactions, responses and strategies will remain fractured, if not out of sync. The US, or any other actors, should not assume a unified region, and should not treat Southeast Asia as a single strategic unit.
Key Traps for Biden to Avoid
The Biden White House inherited declining confidence from the region, with the exception of Vietnam. Most countries saw US involvement in Southeast Asia weakening under President Donald Trump, and believed that the political-strategic significance of the US had decreased, along with its reliability.2 Singapore and Vietnam arguably put in the most effort to keep the US engaged.
Biden’s election win brought a lot of enthusiasm and hope that the US would return to more conventional diplomacy, responsible conduct and commitment to multilateralism. Yet, after the honeymoon, some Southeast Asians have started to lose that initial enthusiasm.3 It turns out that Biden is equally committed to competing and is selectively engaged with Southeast Asia, but rather dismissive toward ASEAN as a whole. As a result, most of the worries and anxieties listed above remain. The main sticking points for the Biden administration seem to be similar to the ones under Trump. In 2018, when the Trump administration was conceptualizing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, I wrote a piece called “Three Traps in Building the Indo-Pacific Narrative Thus Far,” which cautioned against three main pitfalls.4 They were:
Insincerity. The emphasis on a rules-based order is very selective regarding who is violating the rules. Framing the FOIP based on the competition of systems and ideologies and an “over-emphasis on democracy by the US and its allies” could alienate many in Southeast Asia.
Insensitivity. Sounding like a choice between the US and China, the FOIP is an insensitive proposal for Southeast Asia, which is deeply intertwined economically and politically with China.
Incredulity. The FOIP project is ultimately a test of credibility, especially for the US. The ability to mobilize allies is just as critical as the ability to lead economic initiatives and contribute to the regional economic architecture.
Biden is continuing the Indo-Pacific strategy. There have been a number of adjectives other than “free and open” in use already, but it is still unclear which ones will stick. The premise of the FOIP makes sense to both sides of the political spectrum in the US and in the absence of a new and more persuasive strategy, a change for the sake of change itself has no sufficient justification. But inheriting Trump’s signature foreign policy comes with a price. The Trump administration’s framing of the Indo-Pacific fell into all three traps I cautioned against.
The three traps for the Biden administration I am cautioning against are:
Making the same mistake of falling into the same three traps mentioned above.
Continuing Trump’s foreign policy — especially unpopular decisions on trade.
Treating Asia as it was before, not as it is today.
The first set of traps derive from the fundamental premise of the structural, systemic and ideological core of America. It now considers the great-power competition as based on political systems and the ideologies that justify them: democracy versus autocracy. This is not an easy sell not only in Southeast Asia, but globally. Democracy is in retreat and has been for some time. The most robust democracies, the US included, are also suffering from institutional crises undermining their democratic conduct, values and norms. In Asia, arguably the main theater for the competition the US is engaged in, democratic health is weak. The US is painting itself into a rhetorical corner by talking about democratic principles and its role as the defender of a free and open world smack in the middle of the ASEAN region (which it claims to see as “central”), which includes Myanmar, a country essentially experiencing civil war. A legitimate government, re-elected by an overwhelming majority, has been arrested by a junta, while civilians are detained, attacked and even killed. The US has imposed sanctions on the country but has done little to support the people who fight for democracy with their own lives. The rhetorical note that Biden is hitting with his “democracy summit” is a bitter delusion for the Myanmar people. This ideology-based rhetoric may be on the way in many other bilateral relations in the region.
Losing Sight of Trade
Just as unpopular rhetoric about an alliance for democracy are associated with the Trump era in Asia, Biden is risking similar reactions from America’s actions against its partners and allies. America is not offering much in terms of its protective trade policies. Its hegemonic power after the Second World War was, other than military dominance, used to build economic architecture and the idea of rising prosperity through trade.
Thus far, the Biden administration has signaled that it will not part from the protectionist agenda. Washington is shying away from economic integration with the region, opting out of multilateral trade pacts and offering no new alternatives. Even though Biden has promised a future economic framework, this remains too elusive and noncommittal. Asia, or the Indo-Pacific, is the most important economic region in the world and its growth (even though complicated by the impact of Covid) will continue to drive the world’s economy. America is sitting out the economic story in the region.
One of the results of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s was the perception that the US didn’t come to help when its partners and allies (Thailand and Indonesia, in particular) were in need, while China did and has since gained the reputation as the most economically important actor in the region. The post-Covid reality presents similar parallels to the Asian financial crisis. Countries will need more support in their economic recoveries.
While comparisons to the Cold War era remain problematic, in many ways the manner in which great powers attempt to exert influence shows some resemblance. The risk is that they would expect similar outcomes, allegiances and perhaps even loyalty often based on historical experience. But that’s a wrong assumption. Southeast Asia has learned lessons from the Cold War, a time when nations took firm stances and positions — and even the non-aligned countries were clearly anti-Communist.
ASEAN’s collective security role is being challenged by individual members’ policy choices regarding economic development over dispute management. This is likely to be compounded by the effect of Covid-19. Vietnam and Singapore will remain outward oriented in their security considerations, but other nations, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and to a lesser degree the Philippines, are likely to show a more inward-looking domestic focus. 5In general, countries in the region will have less appetite for a “hard security” agenda. The Biden administration may find it difficult to get regional support for its “military-heavy” Indo-Pacific strategy.
Today’s Southeast Asia is likely to be significantly weakened by the fallout from the lasting pandemic. As the variants wreaks havoc, the region faces economic recession for the first time in decades. Southeast Asian nations will be in great need of economic stimulus and will value economic engagement even more than they already do. That said, the conspicuous absence of the US from trade pacts and its lack of a true economic pillar to its Indo-Pacific strategy will become a major shortcoming. Without a concrete economic strategy, the US is effectively sitting out from shaping the evolving economic order in the region.
In the strategic competition in Southeast Asia, China has advantages over the US in the above areas. Despite threatening the security of many in the region and even exercising its so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy, China is still better at managing the relationships than the US. Washington needs to match that.
The Biden administration lags behind in filling critical diplomatic posts, including to its most important partners and allies in the region. At the time of writing, the US still does not have ambassadors in the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand and the ASEAN Secretariat itself. Singapore was vacant for five years before the new envoy, Jonathan Kaplan, assumed the position in December. Key diplomatic posts in the region among partners and allies Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — not to mention China — still remain vacant. Diplomacy is essential in Asia. The Biden administration needs to up its messaging, otherwise American initiatives and leadership will likely face constant skepticism, if not distrust. The mixed reaction to the rather clumsily-announced trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US (AUKUS) is an example of that.
Going forward, the US needs to be patient with Southeast Asia and engage, despite the fact that this alone may not yield any immediate shifts. But it is a necessary condition — not a sufficient one. Biden needs to accept that the region’s loyalty will be limited, conditional and most likely unstable. Washington needs to see past distance and size and recognize that Southeast Asia is essential. It is the center for Asia’s economic story, and it is the primary theater for great power competition. Above all, the US needs to acknowledge that the region is important in itself and engage with it in its own right, rather than just as a component of its competition with China. Otherwise, it runs the risk of losing the advantage it once had, and even becoming ostracized.
1 Lee Hsien Loong, “The Endangered Asian Century: America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation,”Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020,www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2020-06-04/lee-hsien-loong-endangered-asian-century
2 “The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey Report,” ASEAN Studies Center, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Jan. 29, 20,www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/state-of-southeast-asia-survey/test-state-of-southeast-asia-survey-01
3 “Can America Come Back? Prospects for U.S.-Southeast Asia Relations under the Biden Administration,” Asia Policy, Oct. 27, 2021, www.nbr.org/publication/can-america-come-back-prospects-for-u-s-southeast-asia-relations-under-the-biden-administration
4 Huong Le Thu, “PacNet #43: Three Traps in Building the Indo-Pacific Narrative Thus Far,” Pacific Forum, June 22, 2018,pacforum.org/publication/pacnet-43-three-traps-in-building-the-indo-pacific-narrative-thus-far
5 Desmond Ball, Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Tim Huxley, C. Raja Mohan, Brendan Taylor, “Asia’s New Geopolitics: Military Power and Regional Order,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, September 2021,www.iiss.org/publications/adelphi/2021/asias-new-geopolitics