The Debate

Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?

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The Debate

Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?

The recent ASEAN meetings capped an alarming trend of eroding U.S. influence.

Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

For 70 years the United States has dominated Southeast Asia with both hard and soft power — the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. While its hard power is still dominant and may even grow, its soft power seems to have declined. This decrease is both absolute and relative to that of China — the awakening giant next door to Southeast Asia.

From August 2-8, 2017, ASEAN leaders and their dialogue partners, including China and the United States, held a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. The South China Sea issues were a prominent focus, and the results of these meetings indicated a new low in U.S. diplomatic influence.

The South China Sea issues are important in themselves but one should always be aware of the context in which they are embedded – the contest between China and the United States for dominance in the region.  This fundamental security dilemma has now become plain for all to see: an increasingly aggressive China eroding a U.S.-led status quo with an increasingly divided and irrelevant ASEAN. At these meetings, the South China Sea issues were the foil for this titanic geopolitical struggle.

After some delay reflecting sharp disagreement within ASEAN, the resulting joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting strongly favored China’s preferences over its opponents within ASEAN as well as those of the United States. Indeed, according to Philippine analyst Richard Heydarian, “Overall it’s a slam dunk diplomatic victory for China.”

The run up to these annual ASEAN security meetings was marked by heavy diplomatic lobbying by both China and the United States for their preferences. China wanted no discussion or even any reference to its claims or activities in the South China Sea or to the 2016 arbitration ruling against the same. China also did not support any reference to the need for a “legally binding” Code of Conduct (COC) between it, ASEAN, and its members. The United States, meanwhile, strongly supported implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision, as well as a goal of a robust, legally binding COC.

China’s possible legal rationales for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea were rejected by the international arbitration panel last summer. Yet China apparently still claims the nine-dash line or exclusive economic zones (EEZs) from the Spratly features it occupies and has threatened to use force to back its claim. The United States argued that this is a violation of the existing international law and order – which it helped build and still asymmetrically benefits from. Moreover, the United States, Japan, and Vietnam tried to use China’s threats and actions to attempt to unite ASEAN against China – at least on this set of issues.

But the approved ASEAN-China agreed framework for negotiation of a COC did not mention the need to have it be legally binding, enforceable, or contain a dispute resolution mechanism. Nor did the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ joint communique refer to the arbitration decision. Vietnam — with the U.S. preference in the background — did manage to have a phrase included that “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states” and another that “took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” The ministers also reaffirmed the need to “pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.” This wording is far less robust and China-specific than Vietnam and the United States and its allies preferred. Indeed it is sufficiently vague that China and its supporters within ASEAN could live with it. After all it could and would apply to other claimants and even the United States as well.

Although the United States, Japan, and Australia did not get the result that they wanted in the ASEAN communique, they doubled down with their own ministers’ statement.  In that statement, they  “underscored the importance of upholding the rules-based order” and voiced their strong opposition “to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.” They also urged “SCS claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation.” Further, the ministers “called on all claimants to make and clarify their maritime claims in accordance with the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.” The ministers also “urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”

But in the most controversial portion of their statement, the U.S., Australian, and Japanese ministers called on “China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties.” This was much stronger wording than ASEAN – and China – preferred. Indeed, Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano said in apparent response, “We appreciate not being told what to do.”

Cambodia and the Philippines generally supported China’s preferences while the rest of ASEAN was largely non-committal. Obviously, ASEAN was split on the South China Sea — much to China’s advantage and much to the United States’ chagrin. As Asia analyst Bonnie Glaser put it, “With ASEAN itself divided and China’s sway over individual ASEAN members growing, this is an unsurprising even if disappointing development.”

If the outcome of these ASEAN meetings were the only concern, it could and probably should be dismissed as a blip in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship. But it comes against a broad background of U.S. setbacks in the region.

The relative decline in U.S. soft power accelerated when the Trump administration withdrew from the U.S.-championed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic pact. In October 2016 Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in reference to the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal, “Now you say ‘I will walk away, that I do not believe in this deal.’ How can anyone believe in you anymore?” Then Trump seemed to be willing to make a deal with China — if China helped restrain North Korea, the United States would lessen pressure on China in the South China Sea. To ASEAN nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra is beginning to feel to allies, friends, and even enemies more like “you are on your own.”

Also eroding trust and confidence in the United States, the Philippines under new President Rodrigo Duterte moved toward a more neutral stance between China and the United States. Despite the 65 year-old U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippines was not sure Washington would back it militarily in a conflict with China. Indeed, Duterte criticized the United States for pushing the Philippines to raise the arbitral tribunal ruling with China when it did not send troops to help protect its islands in the South China Sea from Beijing’s reclamation activities.

The Philippines is increasingly reluctant to allow the United States to use its territory to “deter” China or to jointly exercise with it in the South China Sea. U.S. allies Australia, Japan, and the Philippines have so far declined U.S. requests to join its freedom of navigation operations against China’s claims. Even Indonesian expressed disapproval over U.S. “power projection” in the South China Sea. U.S. relations with Thailand have not been close since the military coup there in 2014 and Bangkok seems to be leaning toward China. The same can be said for Malaysia since the United States took a legal interest in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s international financial dealings. Even staunch U.S. strategic partner Singapore may be warming to China and its political positions.

According to Bill Hayton of Chatham House, “Southeast Asian governments are coming to believe that they will not get practical support from the Trump administration so they cannot take risks with China.”  This loss of confidence clearly erodes U.S. soft power and weakens ASEAN’s bargaining position vis-a-vis China.

In sum, the United States is discovering the hard way that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are shallower and more ephemeral than it thought. The Trump administration needs to urgently enhance its soft power commitments in the region if it hopes to stem or even keep pace with China’s growing influence.

longer version of this piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Visiting Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China