Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

How the US Can Win Back Southeast Asia

President Trump has done damage to America’s image, but the U.S. can still secure its abiding regional interests.

By Charles Dunst for
How the US Can Win Back Southeast Asia
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

In a scene unimaginable to Americans 50 and perhaps even 30 years ago, on March 4 the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier docked at Da Nang, Vietnam – where the first American troops arrived in 1965 – to commemorate 25 years of U.S.-Vietnam relations. The Roosevelt is the second U.S. aircraft carrier to dock in Vietnam since the war; the first, the USS Carl Vinson, did so in 2018.

Vietnam is usually wary of antagonizing China with such U.S. cooperation, but the Hanoi leadership seemingly decided it necessary to bring the Americans ashore at this moment, given China’s unrelenting militarization of the South China Sea.

The rest of Southeast Asia, however, does not echo Vietnam’s relative American affinity. Thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump’s antagonism and diplomatic distance, regional confidence in the United States has declined: Southeast Asians now believe that China has more regional power and influence than the United States and will have considerably more in ten years.

But the region is not lost. The United States can “win back” Southeast Asia by spearheading collective security and multilateral economic efforts there, abandoning the Cold War-like conception of competition with China, and, above all, being patient. Ultimately, the United States can secure its abiding regional interests by stepping up, reforming, and redefining its Southeast Asia strategy – and engaging the region parallel to a rotting Chinese regime.

Vietnam: A Friend in Need

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Washington’s primary target should be Vietnam. China occupied the country for almost 1,000 years, until the 10th century, and has intermittently invaded since, leaving the Vietnamese with a healthy distrust of their northern neighbor. Modern China-Vietnam relations thus oscillate between “cooperation and struggle.”

“The Vietnamese can’t trust the Chinese,” said Vietnamese historian Duong Trung Quoc. “We’ve had too much practice.”

Such lacking trust is evident in their current relations. Months after the two countries’ defense ministers met in 2019 to demonstrate their military ties, a former senior Vietnamese foreign ministry official publicly accused China of “intimidation and coercion,” questioning whether Beijing and Hanoi could ever negotiate claims to the South China Sea in “good faith.” Tensions boiled over this April, when a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the sea.

While the Vietnam War is now history, Vietnam’s struggle against China remains ongoing.

“It will never end,” said one Vietnamese millennial. “With the Chinese, how can it ever end?”

In 2017, 80 percent of Vietnamese deemed China’s power and influence a “major threat.” In 2020, over 95 percent of Vietnamese business, public sector, and civil society elite expressed worry about China’s “growing regional political and strategic influence.”

On the other hand, 84 percent of the Vietnamese public holds favorable opinions of the United States. Of those same elites, over 76 percent said that they welcomed American political and strategic influence. Meanwhile, Washington and Hanoi have become strategic partners in all but name.

But Vietnam, thanks to its long history of Chinese, French, Japanese, and American occupation, hinges its foreign policy on the “three nos”: no formal military alliances; no hosting foreign military bases; no explicit alignment with any single outside actor. And yet, its 2019 defense white paper proclaimed that Vietnam “will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries,” signaling some surprising if understated willingness to move more definitively into Washington’s orbit.

If the United States plays its cards right, the Roosevelt’s docking at Da Nang – the Vietnamese city closest to the South China Sea’s disputed waters and islands – could be the first step in such “appropriate” U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Southeast Asia: The China Factor

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Similar opportunities abound throughout the region.

The United States has already conducted joint military exercises with Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In September 2019, the United States even launched the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN joint naval exercises, which took place in the South China Sea.

Months later, though, China flexed its muscles there, its coast guard ships escorting dozens of Chinese fishing boats through Indonesian waters. Jakarta carefully deployed warships and four F-16 jet fighters to drive away China – a major investor in Indonesian infrastructure – without escalating tensions.

This episode epitomizes Southeast Asia’s approach to China. The underdeveloped region balks at Chinese aggression, debt-trapping, and failure to involve locals in development projects, but relies on Chinese investment. Geography, China’s might and Southeast Asia’s underdevelopment renders necessary functional relations with the Asian giant.

But Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is undermining his country’s ascendancy, pushing many Southeast Asian leaders away from Beijing’s proposed “community of common destiny” that “injects a sense of determinism about the inevitability of the intertwined destiny between China and ASEAN member states.”

Xi has replaced China’s collective leadership structure with strongman rule, creating a qualitatively different regime whose foreign policy is impulsive, rather than pragmatic. Xi ended the “Golden Age” of Chinese diplomacy by transforming the country’s soft-spoken envoys into “Wolf Warriors” who publicly quarrel with foreign governments and media to satisfy the nationalist audience watching at home. His foreign policy recklessness is evident in both China’s recent violence in the Indian Himalayas and extension of territorial claims in Bhutan.

Such aggression subverts Chinese efforts to bring Southeast Asia into the Sino-centric “community of common destiny.” Indeed, Beijing’s bombast, coupled with its growing militarization and coercive tendencies, ensures that most of Southeast Asia will keep open its diplomatic options for fears of becoming Chinese vassals. Cambodia and Laos are cautionary tales.

The region yearns for ties with both Beijing and Washington, a position Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly made plain. In 2019, he said that while he welcomed proposals for “Indo-Pacific cooperation,” these plans must not “create rival blocs, deepen fault lines or force countries to take sides.”

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has ignored Southeast Asia’s bicephalous hopes to unwisely imply the existence of Cold War-like rival blocs and thus a binary choice between Washington and Beijing, even though the international landscape is not comparable to the Soviet era, and even though 21st century China poses a much more daunting challenge than the 20th century Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the security environment today is far more benign than it was then, while middle power countries – like those in Southeast Asia – have far more agency.

Washington’s Cold War paradigm is not only inaccurate but strategically unwise. Southeast Asians are wary of being forced to choose between the two Great Powers, as they were to disastrous effect decades ago. But if forced to choose between China, the nearby and active option, and the increasingly distant and erratic United States, many in Southeast Asia would impassively go with the former, considering it “better to be on the side of the healthy and vigorous bully next door than the distracted hero on the other side of town.”

Backing them into such a decision is clearly not in the American interest.

Still, thanks to China’s initially incompetent handling of COVID-19, along with a litany of other complaints, anti-Chinese sentiment is rising rapidly across Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the region maintains a relative but long-running predilection for the United States.

Winning Back Southeast Asia

Washington can capitalize on this by accepting Southeast Asia’s relatively agnostic approach to the great powers and pursuing closer ties with the region nonetheless, particularly in reference to security and economic cooperation.

The United States retains a network of Asian friends, while China has very few, on which it can lean to build collective security. Washington can and should also extend implicit protection guarantees like those it has provided Singapore and Taiwan.

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China’s increasing belligerence actually renders American security offers all the more attractive. For instance, while the Philippines in February notified the United States of its plans to withdraw their bilateral visiting forces treaty, in what was seen as a major coup for Beijing, President Rodrigo Duterte effectively restored the accord with the United States in June after Chinese aggression in the Philippines’ South China Sea waters.

The United States faces a more uphill climb on the economic front.

“Whether we like it or not,” Southeast Asians “have to go to the Chinese” for infrastructure investment, per former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. China is indeed the largest bilateral infrastructure financier in the region, its projects totaling $42 billion from 2008-2016. All 10 ASEAN members have signed on to China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Rather than directly confront the BRI – a doomed pursuit, given Xi’s seemingly-unending ability to marshal state funds – the United States must develop compelling alternatives to it. American coordination with Japan and Australia on regional infrastructure investment is promising, as are multilateral partnerships (like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump abandoned) that allow Southeast Asian nations to benefit from U.S. engagement without forsaking Chinese investment.

But Trump himself has undermined the American position. His anti-Muslim rhetoric alienated Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei; Mahathir even asked him “to resign to save America.”

Trump has also aggravated non-Muslim countries by berating and sanctioning them over negligible issues like deportations. His bizarre 2017 White House meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is a prime example. In this meeting, the president only raised three things – North Korea, the trade deficit, and, remarkably, U.S. deportations of war refugees with criminal convictions to Vietnam – with the prime minister, Ted Osius, the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told me in 2018 in Ho Chí Minh City.

The administration also absurdly threatened to sanction Vietnam for refusing to repatriate these war refugees – who are explicitly exempted from deportation by a 2008 bilateral agreement signed by the George W. Bush administration – and later sanctioned both Cambodia and Laos for refusing to accept an adequate number of deportees (also mainly war refugees with criminal convictions).

“It was shooting ourselves in the foot,” Osius said of Trump’s posturing on Vietnam.

Amid this unneeded antagonism, the Trump administration has also indefensibly left empty U.S. ambassadorships to ASEAN, the Philippines, Singapore, and Myanmar. In a region where benevolently “showing up” is half the battle, the United States under Trump has exhibited unnecessary enmity and chronic absenteeism.

But these self-inflicted wounds are not fatal. Sixty percent of U.S.-skeptical regional elites say that their confidence in the United States would increase if Trump were no longer president. A Joe Biden administration could repair this lacking trust, but a Biden reorientation to Southeast Asia – besides avoiding Trump-like negligence – must comprise both sustained pressure on China and engagement alongside it in the region.

The United States retains one key advantage on this front: It can promise middle powers their cherished autonomy, which China, with its explicitly Sino-centric and -serving world order, cannot. Washington makes requests of its partners; the Beijing regime, like its imperial predecessor, considers itself the seat of a superior civilization and thus expects outright deference from its subordinates.

This arrogance, coupled with Xi’s growing impetuousness, inflames anti-Chinese sentiment in Southeast Asia and keeps the region on the alert and, for now, out of Beijing’s proposed “community of common destiny.”

Paradoxically, the United States can cement its regional influence by engaging and contemporarily coexisting alongside rather than directly competing against China. Washington’s success, however, requires not only a new president, but an embrace of the equanimity that once served its former foes in Vietnam so well.

Chậm mà chắc,” the Vietnamese proverb proclaims. “Slowly, but surely.”

Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has reported from Southeast Asia for The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy.