As U.S.-China rivalry takes on a hardening ideological dimension, a great deal of ink has been spilled about the competition for influence in Southeast Asia, the front line of great power competition. Yet the Trump administration’s Asia policy, or Free and Open Indo-Pacific, should avoid a false prism of U.S.-China competition, recognizing that regional states may not necessarily share Washington’s strategic calculus.
Absent serious consideration concerning the end goals of strategic competition, framing U.S. policy around competition itself risks confusing means and ends. Competent policy should begin with serious reflection and asking difficult questions about the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) doctrine.
First, what is the United States’ desired end state of strategic competition? Is the goal to preserve the values spelled out in FOIP? Is it to contain China’s rise? Or is it to maintain the ability of front-line states to maintain their sovereignty “free from coercion”? The three goals are not identical, though they may be linked. For instance, the United States could struggle to check China even as it promotes “free and open” values; conversely, it could work to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region that allows China’s rise within existing rules and institutions.
Second, what is the best way to achieve U.S. goals? Is a military strategy devoted to a reinvigorated security presence, increased freedom of navigation operations, and defense exercises with front-line allies and partners, the best way to push back on Beijing’s regional ambitions? Or would a more active diplomacy better suit the administration’s strategy, based on face-to-face assurances, direct talks, educational exchanges, and support for U.S. values such as democracy and freedom of expression? Regarding economic policy, should the United States continue to pursue bilateral trade deals with Vietnam and Japan, or resume support for multilateral deals, which the Trump administration has abandoned?
Third, the administration should ask: What do regional partners in Southeast Asia want from Washington, and how can we best enlist their support? The Trump administration should seriously consider the possibility that not all front-line partners want a more robust U.S. military presence to confront China. Some, such as Malaysia, may fear such a response will increase the chances of conflict rather than avert it.
If the aim of a declared U.S.-China competition is to preserve the values spelled out in the FOIP Strategy, then a hard pitch to Southeast Asian nations is unnecessary. As a collection of smaller states in a neighborhood of giants, Southeast Asian countries are acutely aware of the importance of sovereignty, independence, peaceful dispute resolution, and international law. These principles undergirded the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, after all, and they are repeatedly reflected in all major ASEAN documents.
However, if the end goal of this strategic competition is for the United States to retain sole and global preeminence as the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy indicate, then two discomfiting trend lines flow for Southeast Asia. First, the assertion of an ideological dichotomy – democracies versus autocracies – casts a false binary for the region. The two are not mutually exclusive: Democracies can have autocratic lapses and autocracies can, in fact, have democratic characteristics. Further, although equivalence is often drawn between democracies and effective governance, the ways in which different countries have managed the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that they are not preconditions of each other.
In free and open societies, ideas should compete, rise and fall, based on the merits of their argument, not on the will of great powers. A dialectic framed by ideology is reminiscent of the “either you are with us, or against us” trope that cast a shadow over the Bush administration’s Asia policy. Such a prism denies agency and “otherizes” Southeast Asian countries, who are capable of deciding independent foreign policies regardless of great power competition. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently warned in Foreign Affairs, “Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”
The United States’ sharp distinction between democratic and authoritarian rule also belies the contemporary political landscape of Southeast Asia, with its eclectic mix of government systems and ideologically agnostic, inclusive approach to international engagements. The ASEAN Regional Forum, for example, is the only regional, multilateral framework that convenes North Korea and Russia along with the United States and its allies. Although the process itself is formally cumbersome, the opportunities on the margins of meetings allow the tedious slog of trust- and capacity-building to take place among even adversaries.
It is also not a given that such an ideological competition is necessary. First, there is no evidence the Chinese government is exporting “Leninism” globally. Second, even if the Chinese government wanted to, it would not succeed in a “Leninist takeover” of the region — for many reasons, but in no small part due to Southeast Asia’s rich diversity and complex historical context, in which China’s Communist Party has been a reality for almost a century.
The second disconcerting trend line for Southeast Asia is that even though the FOIP Strategy and NSS assert that competition is not conflict, there seems room for only one eventual winner in a competition marked by escalating tensions. This has resulted in a persistent state of angst about being forced to choose between two great powers. It also risks relegating Southeast Asian states to mere bystanders in an exercise of strategic delineation. The United States’ continued receptivity to cooperating with China on “areas of common interest,” even as competitive pressures build, is therefore welcome relief for Southeast Asia.
Some have suggested that the choice for Southeast Asia is not between the United States and China; rather between a rules-based future and one where power prevails. The truth, as they say, lies somewhere in the middle. The rules-based order has and continues to proffer numerous examples of might making right, of rule-makers also being transgressors.
The United States best distinguishes itself as a great power when it leads by example – when partners are supported as peers not pawns, and when respect for international law is preached and practiced both abroad and at home. For Southeast Asia, an ancient entrepot of civilizations, empires, trade, and people, the future must look like its pre-colonial past: shared and varied, complex not reductive. In a free and open Indo-Pacific, the future should not be an ultimatum.
Elina Noor (@elinanoor) is Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University.
Francisco Bencosme (@bencosmef) is the Senior Policy Advisor for Asia at Open Society Foundations.