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What Does the US Indo-Pacific Framework Say About Southeast Asia?

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What Does the US Indo-Pacific Framework Say About Southeast Asia?

The document lays out ambitious aims for the region, with little apparent sense of how they can be fulfilled.

What Does the US Indo-Pacific Framework Say About Southeast Asia?

U.S. President Donald Trump visits the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command (later renamed Indo-Pacific Command) in Hawai’i on November 3, 2017.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command

On January 5, a day before the tumult at the United States Capitol, the U.S. government declassified one of its most sensitive national security documents: its 2018 U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.

The full 10-page framework document, which was made public late on January 12, minus a number of redactions, represents the blueprint of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy developed by President Donald Trump’s National Security Council through the course of 2017.

From an initial scan of the document, it is clear that the framework is focused on recalibrating U.S. policy to compete with a more powerful, ambitious, and belligerent China. Beyond that, there is a lot to parse, and each paragraph is ripe for analysis in light of past and future American actions. (Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University’s National Security College has a good first-take analysis here.)

At the most basic level, it is interesting and refreshing to see what senior U.S. officials were telling themselves about the Indo-Pacific strategy in private. For instance, the document defines the “top interests” of the U.S. in the region as follows: “Defend the homeland and American citizens abroad; prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them; preserve U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military access to the most populous region of the world and more than one-third of the global economy; enhance the credibility and effectiveness of our alliances; and maintain U.S. primacy in the region while protecting American core values and liberties at home.” As Ankit Panda, a former editor at The Diplomat, noted on Twitter, this amounts to “a pretty good non-euphemistic distillation of what the ‘liberal international order’ really means in Asia.”

Another striking thing is the fact both the sweeping nature of the framework’s objectives (“maintain U.S. primacy in the region”), and the inevitable shortfall between intent and execution. This gap is particularly apparent in the report’s section on Southeast Asia, a region that top U.S. officials have frequently described as central to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.

The section defines Washington’s first aim for the region as follows: to “promote and reinforce Southeast Asia and ASEAN’s central role in the region’s security architecture, and encourage it to speak with one voice on key issues.”

However, little information is given as to how the U.S. might achieve this. To start with the second clause of the sentence, the wide diversity among ASEAN’s ten member states makes this sort of substantive consensus unlikely, especially on the question that is clearly most important to the authors of the framework document: China. Part of the reason is that the region dwells in China’s neighborhood, is economically entwined with it, and thus has little appetite for taking sides in a new era of great power competition – a fundamental starting point for the region’s approach to Sino-American competition.

Elsewhere, the report states similarly that the U.S. should aim for a Southeast Asia “that works closely with the United States and our allies” to uphold principles including sovereignty, freedom of navigation, standards of trade and investment, and respect for individual rights and the rule of law. Once again, this overstates both the extent to which Southeast Asian governments are unified in their commitment to these principles, and the extent to which they could be encouraged to confront China over them.

Then there is the framework’s commitment to ASEAN’s “centrality,” something that has also been echoed by senior Trump administration officials over the past two years. To be sure, ASEAN centrality is a vague and sometimes elusive concept, one that the U.S. will probably always struggle to reaffirm in a manner that fully satisfies the region’s governments.

At the same time, the Trump administration’s diplomatic engagement with ASEAN has been piecemeal and underwhelming. The failure to send high-level representation to important diplomatic summits like the East Asia Summit – even in 2020, when the virtual meetings did not require travel – has failed to uphold even the most minimal definition of ASEAN centrality, even as U.S. officials have harangued the region to form a unified front against China.

In the same section, the Indo-Pacific strategy document pledges to reinforce Washington’s economic ties with Southeast Asia, including by pursuing “trade agreements that contain trade and investment standards set by the United States and that reduce the region’s economic reliance on China.” Here again, we see a yawning gap between intent and reality. Indeed, with the recent agreement of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China, ASEAN, and five other nations, the U.S. now finds itself languishing outside of Asia’s two major free trade pacts.

Another thing that is apparent is the perfunctory nature of the framework’s section on Southeast Asia. Coming at the end of the document, after lengthier sections on India and South Asia, China, and the Korean peninsula, and shoehorned in with the Pacific Island nations, it comes across as something of an afterthought. In the whole report, there is no mention of Thailand and the Philippines, both U.S. treaty allies, and only one mention of Indonesia and Vietnam, two increasingly important American partners.

The framework document also pledges the U.S. to “promote and support Burma’s transition to democracy,” but curiously says nothing about democracy or human rights anywhere else in Southeast Asia. While I have argued before that a muscular attempt to evangelize liberal values will likely court tensions with Southeast Asian governments (especially at such a moment of crisis in U.S. politics), this one-off mention of Myanmar – hardly the only nation with a liberal or democratic deficit – again seems to suggest the secondary status of the region and its challenges in the minds of U.S. policy-makers.

Shortly after the report’s release, Evan Laksmana of Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies described the section on Southeast Asia as “disappointing but not surprising.” “This section of the declassified U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy tells us just how much D.C. doesn’t understand Southeast Asia and merely gives lip-service to ASEAN centrality – and how secondary we are to other regional powers,” he wrote.

Indeed, it also confirms something that has long been clear under Trump (and even before): the fact that U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia remains subsidiary to its policy toward China.