As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to shape U.S.-Southeast Asia strategy within its broader Indo-Pacific framework in 2022, it faces a rather familiar challenge for U.S. policymakers: how to translate rhetorical statements about Southeast Asia’s importance into actual commitments to the region in a calibrated and sustained manner.
As I argue in my new book, “Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy,” based on conversations with hundreds of officials and experts in the United States and in the region along with a mix of primary and secondary sources, much of the struggle of U.S. policymakers in the past half-century with respect to Southeast Asia can be framed as the challenge of sustaining a level and distribution of foreign policy commitment to the region that matches its growing importance. The book’s application of an original “balance of commitment” foreign policy model across administrations since the end of the Vietnam War – which goes beyond some traditional balance of power approaches – shows that this commitment challenge is rooted not just in differences between administrations or divides between Washington and the region, but in the structural challenge of simultaneously calibrating adjustments between three variables: power shifts, threat perceptions, and resource extraction within the U.S. domestic system. I refer to this as the pursuit of “elusive balances.”
The Biden administration currently faces such a balance of commitment challenge now, at an inflection point in U.S. Asia strategy and amid shifting regional realities. The administration finds itself in a situation in which the relative distribution of power is showing signs of shifting toward China and domestic threat perceptions have risen with respect to Washington’s regional position, but the ability to mobilize resources remains limited amid political divisions and the exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic. An analysis of similar dynamics in past administrations suggests that these structural conditions, if not properly managed, could distort the shape of the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia. This could happen both in terms of the levels of commitment across the diplomatic, economic, and security realms, and how the U.S. manages to balance its commitments between ideals and interests, economics and security, and bilateral and multilateral approaches. All this risks generating an unbalanced policy that underdelivers in some areas, some of which we saw during the Obama administration, despite its successes.
To its credit, the Biden administration has recognized some of these challenges and has taken steps to address them. This has involved recommitting to engagements that were irregular under the Trump administration, such as the U.S.-ASEAN Summit (despite the grouping’s well-known institutional challenges), or restoring some stability in “responsible competition” with China amid regional concerns. At the same time, doubts are already surfacing about how U.S. commitment translates into resourcing the defense budget and the upcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) amid regional demand signals. And while the Biden team’s democracy agenda holds promise in tackling some governance issues, some prominent Southeast Asian voices have also cautioned about its limits and challenges.
Beyond addressing these immediate issues, the book’s findings suggest that there is also an opportunity for the Biden team to begin an effort, hopefully sustained by future administrations, about how to manage the U.S. balance of commitment challenge in Southeast Asia more sustainably. This path could begin to be accomplished through five lines of effort.
First, find ways to better sustain increased U.S. commitments to Southeast Asia. As it stands, while U.S. policymakers appreciate the importance of major countries in the region such as treaty allies Philippines and Thailand and key partners such as Indonesia and Vietnam, structural factors such as their relative weight in U.S. policymaking mean they still do not receive the same prioritization as U.S. partners in other Indo-Pacific sub-regions, be they South Korea or India. In Southeast Asia as a whole, existing commitments such as getting a U.S. president to attend ASEAN summits every year have been difficult to sustain. In that context, even small efforts could help both to “raise the floor” of the overall U.S. regional commitment today and to minimize potential drop-offs tomorrow, thereby boosting regional confidence in U.S. efforts, somewhat shaken under Trump, as the countdown begins to an uncertain U.S. election in 2024.
Leading thinkers within the administration understand the need for this. For instance, Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell has advocated for developing strategic partnerships with Southeast Asian states in order to institutionalize relationships and make the case for the region across all 50 U.S. states. The former is under way, with moves such as the effective relaunching of the U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership and the bolstering of the U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Singapore partnerships to address areas such as outer space cooperation and supply chains. The wind will be at the back of policymakers who invest in the latter given the incrementally growing recognition of Southeast Asia in various U.S. states, due to a range of factors including the increasing prominence of certain Southeast Asian American communities; granular work done by active ASEAN embassies in Washington; and the impressive array of interactive tools developed over the past decade to facilitate such conversations, including in survey data, statistics, capability metrics, satellite imagery, real-time monitoring and the establishment of various organizations.
Second, manage and moderate regional perceptions of commitment imbalances. Some of the Southeast Asian concerns about the U.S. commitment – from the imbalance between multilateralism and bilateralism to the one between ideals and interests – are partly rooted in decades-long realities, be they the sense within some in ASEAN that new alignments could threaten the grouping’s centrality in the case of the former, or perceived threats to regime legitimacy from externally-imposed models in the case of the latter. Yet even modest efforts toward adjusting to regional concerns can go a long way in helping Washington seem empathetic while also serving its own interests.
On the imbalance between multilateralism and other approaches, there may be ways to further facilitate complementarity or at least reduce friction between them. Indeed, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) is already increasingly focused on areas of concern to ASEAN states, such as critical and emerging technologies and vaccines, and even the countries of the AUKUS security mechanism are doing far more together in Southeast Asia than its initial announcement suggested. On ideals and interests, if the Biden administration is able to show granular successes in addressing specific governance challenges relevant to Southeast Asia, it may help steer the conversation away from the complaints around regime classifications and invite lists and put the focus on the hard work of solving problems. A humble recognition of the flaws in U.S. democracy, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed in his addressing of discrimination against Asian-Americans at the Fullerton Lecture in Singapore last July, would also help along the way.
Third, send clear and consistent messages about relative power. While the Cold War is far from an exact parallel, a similar attention to clarity and consistency about U.S. power relative to that of its competitors will be critical in the coming years amid ongoing U.S.-China competition, both to reassure Southeast Asia’s elites and publics and to deter some of Beijing’s potential actions. It will also likely take place in a context in which some parts of the region will believe that time is on Beijing’s side due to the relative shift in capabilities, as some surveys already show, and where even U.S. allies and partners will notice when Washington seems to be lacking confidence.
This requires a multipronged approach at home and abroad. At home, as the Biden team has begun to do, the U.S. needs to demonstrate its potential for renewal while also ensuring that this is portrayed not as an inward turn but synergistically advancing ties with Southeast Asia including in the green and digital economy, building on regional developments including the ASEAN Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance and the uptake of digitalization. Abroad, U.S. policymakers should recognize that irrespective of the messaging for a domestic audience, it will inherently be more difficult to bring as much of Southeast Asia along a U.S. policy agenda around a narrow framing of a U.S.-China contest, rather than the broader question about whether Washington and others are able to collectively shape a more multipolar order that avoids either China’s dominance or bipolar competition between Washington and Beijing that constrains the choices of Southeast Asian states.
Fourth, carefully calibrate threat perceptions. While Washington’s status as a large, global power means threat perceptions beyond Southeast Asia will likely continue to affect how it views the region, there are ways to manage them so they do not overly distort regional realities. For instance, during the period after the September 11, 2001 attacks, U.S. attention to the terrorism threat, with Southeast Asia as the so-called “second front,” fed perceptions of militarization and crowded out some of the notable gains that the George W. Bush administration made in other realms, including the historic signing of the U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement – the first of its kind in Asia at the time – and the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, which the Obama administration then built on.
That can be accomplished in a few ways. One is ensuring that Indo-Pacific-related challenges, as befit a priority theater, rank higher in an administration’s threat hierarchy relative to challenges in other regions such as the Middle East or Europe – while also acknowledging that other regions deserve their own attention. The true test of this for any administration comes when it confronts crises and related tradeoffs, and the Biden team could see this moment arrive sometime in 2022 with various challenges including Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan. Another is ensuring the calibration between threats and opportunities – a “threat-opportunity” balance – so that U.S. policy focuses on the optimistic, long-term trajectory of Southeast Asia as a youthful, dynamic, and relatively stable region as opposed to just a place filled with short-term challenges. Some of the Biden team’s early efforts at building out a branded, multisectoral “Futures” initiative offer promise in this regard, and can continue to be amplified by U.S. embassies on the ground to ensure attention to geography, history, and identity in creative ways.
Fifth, find creative ways to manage and message resource constraints. In a domestically-consumed era such as today, U.S. policymakers will need to find innovative pathways to build broad coalitions and marshal scarce resources to move forward on policy decisions on Southeast Asia or related to the region, as has been the case during some past inflection points such as after the end of the Vietnam War or during the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Part of this involves building partnerships at home and abroad. For example, early indications regarding the Biden administration’s IPEF suggests it will be leveraging work by the private sector and building on work with U.S. partners, including sectoral dialogues, to make up for the perceived lack of domestic appetite for ambitious trade deals or significant investments in resources. Beyond that, communicating the sources of domestic constraints clearly to Southeast Asian publics will also be key, as the intricacies of the U.S. domestic political system may not be known as intimately as they are among officials. U.S. officials could use a range of public platforms to signal the limitations they face and efforts made in that context – even as small as protecting key line items in the defense budget – much like Secretary of State Antony Blinken did with his mention of Congress’s role in not approving U.S. ambassadors on time in his recent speech on the Indo-Pacific.
The ebbs, flows, and imbalances of the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia over the past half century suggest that addressing Washington’s commitment challenge is unlikely to come easily. But there is still much that the Biden administration, and those administrations that come after it, can do to at least to manage the challenge to the best of their abilities while being mindful of the constraints they face. In that sense, it is the active search for these balances within U.S. the commitment to Southeast Asia that matters, rather than the fact that they may continue to prove elusive.