The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has ended what some experts perceive as a largely ignominious chapter in U.S. foreign policy. Criticism in Washington has been scathing, as both Democrats and Republicans point to the haphazard manner of the Biden administration’s withdrawal.
Commentary from newspapers and foreign policy experts is awash with comparisons between the fall of Kabul and the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. While such analogies are overly simplistic, Washington did predicate its intervention in both countries on the perceived requirements of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. But aside from this historical comparison, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has important implications for Washington’s engagement with Southeast Asia and the future perceptions of governments in the region.
First, the U.S. departure undermines the Biden administration’s position that “America is back.” In Southeast Asia, Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will amplify pre-existing questions among many governments about the sustainability of U.S. commitments in the region. Southeast Asian policymakers retain some apprehension over U.S. engagement, informed not only by Washington’s intervention in Vietnam and the wider region in its efforts to contain communism, but also by the diminished presence after its withdrawal from Saigon and into the post-Cold War period. While the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia marked a turning point in Washington’s engagement with Southeast Asia, the Trump administration’s piecemeal and transactional approach toward the region rekindled concerns about U.S. commitments.
Second, the recent events in Afghanistan indicate that the U.S. will (for better or worse) prioritize its own interests over those of its supposed allies and like-minded partners. In the first instance, the U.S. withdrawal undermines the security interests of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. All three Southeast Asian governments are undertaking efforts to counter the growing presence of the Islamic State across the region, and the U.S. withdrawal will amplify their concerns about the prospect of Afghanistan once again becoming a hotbed of extremist groups.
Washington’s withdrawal also amplifies pre-existing concerns among Southeast Asian governments that the U.S. will prioritize maintaining U.S. “strategic primacy” across the Indo-Pacific and countering the rise of what U.S. policymakers perceive as an increasingly belligerent China. Under this framework, the U.S. has looked to Southeast Asia rather narrowly, prioritizing security and defense relations.
However, Southeast Asian governments maintain different and varying views toward China, informed by economic interdependence and geographic proximity. Many countries have little desire for external actors to undertake actions that could provoke Beijing, preferring to benefit from China’s economic growth while ensuring external engagement with the region to allow them to tread a fine line.
In the South China Sea, for example, Washington’s interests include freedom of navigation and overflight; the U.S. has also supported the rights of Southeast Asian claimant states to exploit their own resources. However, regional claimants contextualize their respective grievances in the South China Sea within their broader relations with China. Malaysia has recently been more outspoken about Chinese actions, but former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed his apprehensions that the presence of U.S. “warships” would heighten tensions across the region.
Vietnam prioritizes political and economic relations with Beijing. In the case of the former, the Vietnamese Communist Party attaches a high degree of importance on its political and historical connections to the Chinese Communist Party. In terms of economic relations, Hanoi has prioritized trade and investment with its neighbor, managing to quarantine this from tensions in the South China Sea.
Other claimants such as Brunei and Indonesia have also remained largely quiet on the South China Sea, preferring to retain the economic benefits of their relations with China. Meanwhile, the current administration in the Philippines (a U.S. treaty ally) has declined to use the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on its maritime dispute to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea, preferring to cultivate closer economic relations with Beijing.
To be fair, U.S. policymakers have recently tried to align themselves more with the broader interests of Southeast Asian governments. Washington has spoken of a more holistic approach to its vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, underscoring its intention to reinforce Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s role of “centrality” within the regional security and economic architecture. However, little is said on how the U.S. plans to implement this approach, while relations with many Southeast Asian governments appear largely subsidiary to working with like-minded partners and allies, like the nations of the Quad.
From a Southeast Asian perspective, this “holistic approach” to U.S. engagement is lacking when it comes to concrete initiatives to address the broader interests of governments in the region, such as economic development, and support for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Trump administration, Washington withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes three ASEAN members, and preoccupied itself with a trade war aimed at China that diverted trade from U.S. partners, and diminished America’s role in Asia’s economy. Meanwhile, ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in 2020 (ahead of the European Union and the U.S.) while also completing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which accelerates intra-Asian integration around China and other major Asian economies such as Japan.
U.S. efforts to support the pandemic response of Southeast Asian governments do not fare much better. Southeast Asian governments are struggling to procure enough vaccines amid rising case levels driven by the Delta variant of COVID-19. According to recent White House figures, Washington has donated some 24 million doses to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile Beijing has taken the lead on vaccine exports to the region with 235 million doses delivered so far, the bulk of them purchased. Recent reports suggest that the U.S. could donate 10 million excess mRNA vaccine doses globally each week, yet the White House is poised to authorize booster vaccines for its own population, which would seem to indicate that the U.S. remains intent on prioritizing its own recovery from the pandemic.
Greater support for the pandemic response of Southeast Asian countries could prove a valuable policy tool for Washington in demonstrating that the U.S. accounts for the interests of Southeast Asian governments. China is already intent on pursuing this path, with Beijing placing a premium on depicting itself as a leader both in Southeast Asia and more broadly across the developing world.
Enhancing U.S. economic engagement with Southeast Asia could also be mutually beneficial to both parties. Considering that U.S. foreign policy is for the most part based on military deployments to secure “strategic primacy” and counter China’s influence, domestic support is unlikely to hold if there is no real economic value. However, if Washington were to expand economic relations in Southeast Asia this would not only address domestic considerations, but it could also address the apprehensions from Southeast governments over the depth and sustainability of U.S. commitments in the region.