The Biden administration’s newly-released Indo-Pacific strategy rightly recommends an initial focus on working comprehensively with like-minded allies and partners throughout the region, including in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the full success of U.S. strategy in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia will also require finding creative openings for interacting with a wider array of partners, in order to broaden the comprehensiveness of U.S. engagement and account for domestic and regional realities.
While U.S. Southeast Asia policy during the Cold War may have revolved around more selective engagement at various points, including with treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines and partners such as Singapore, the decades since, as I’ve argued before, have seen U.S. policymakers adjust to a more inclusive approach to achieve U.S. objectives. When Cold War-era divisions ended and regional and global conditions shifted, the United States increased diplomatic outreach to communist Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. As the economic and geopolitical weight of Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased, the Bush and Obama administrations began shoring up partnerships with key countries like Malaysia and Indonesia in areas including maritime security and trade, even though these faltered in some cases, as with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
As the Biden administration advances its Indo-Pacific approach, inclusiveness also looms as a consideration in Washington’s Southeast Asia commitment. The diversity of the region means that an exclusive, one-size-fits-all high-standards agenda in any realm will likely just draw in those who already share Washington’s views, which is of limited utility in expanding Washington’s reach. The more contested nature of domestic politics in some Southeast Asian countries over the past few years – even in U.S. treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines – means that any perceived like-mindedness may also ebb and flow much more so than in the past. And in the context of intensified U.S.-China competition, it is often the not-so-traditionally-like-minded partners within the region, such as landlocked Laos or Cambodia, which actually may require more of Washington’s attention to avoid being drawn into Beijing’s orbit, rather than more familiar U.S. partners.
The Biden team’s evolving approach includes a recognition of some of these realities, whether they be the selective engagement of Cambodia thus far despite concerns on several fronts, or the broadening of the Quad into a more inclusive mechanism that better aligns with the priorities of a wider range of countries, which include issues such as vaccines and emerging technologies. But serious follow-through on the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia, which looks beyond the like-minded, will need to address challenges on three key fronts in the coming years in the context of Biden’s evolving Indo-Pacific strategy: economics, security, and democracy.
On the economic front, the challenge for U.S. policy is to find ways to cooperate with countries that do not match the high standards that might be ideal for Washington, in order to broaden U.S. engagement and account for the region’s diversity. Bilateral trade pacts in Southeast Asia have been hard to forge save for the U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement dating back to the George W. Bush years, while plurilateral agreements requiring congressional approval have been difficult for Washington to sell at home, as suggested by the demise of TPP. These realities continue to exist today, and they are grimmer still when paired with the fact that Asia’s trade game is moving on without Washington, as evidenced by the progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Getting past the not-so-like-minded challenge in this domain will require some creative thinking. One starting point is to find non-binding areas of cooperation in specific issue areas relevant to Southeast Asia, such as infrastructure, clean energy, or supply chains, as the Biden team is starting to do with its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which is mentioned in the Indo-Pacific Strategy and is expected to be built out in the coming months. However, in order to attract a wider range of countries in Southeast Asia to the IPEF and assure these countries that commitments will last beyond Biden in a post-TPP world, the administration will need to find ways to offer some market access and work with Congress to secure more binding and durable commitments.
Security-wise, the challenge for U.S. policy is to find ways to collaborate with Southeast Asian countries that do not necessarily have a long and established record of working with the U.S. military in order to diversify the U.S. regional presence. To be sure, there are understandable reasons for Washington to center sensitive security cooperation around existing partners, including interoperability and in order to leverage allies and partners as its “single greatest asymmetric strength,” as the Strategy puts it. Nonetheless, the remarkable, multi-decade transition in U.S.-Vietnam relations from Cold War enemies to comprehensive partners offers a sense of how an inclusive approach can bring incremental gains despite the perceived absence of initial “like-mindedness.” Additionally, such an approach also makes strategic sense for Washington in the context of U.S.-China competition, given that Beijing is continuing to find openings for constructing its own security partnerships in the region, including with U.S. allies that have not traditionally fit China’s own conception of like-mindedness, like the Philippines.
Engaging the not-so-like-minded in the security domain could mean starting with small steps with select partners, rather than more ambitious ones such as basing arrangements or the rotational deployment of U.S. personnel. Looser provisions, such as for port visits, the pre-positioning of certain types of U.S. equipment for war legacy-related cooperation, and the creation of stopover points for multilateral exercises covering areas like military medicine, as Washington has tried to do with countries such as Brunei or Timor-Leste, would nonetheless at least begin normalizing the notion of a more distributed U.S. security presence in Southeast Asia. In countries which may be wary of direct U.S. security engagement as a whole or during certain periods, U.S. policymakers can also look to make indirect gains through allies and partners which can sometimes help advance shared objectives with less sensitivities. These include Japan, Australia, and South Korea, which have all made their own security inroads in Southeast Asia in recent years.
In terms of democracy, the challenge is engaging the region on a longstanding U.S. foreign policy priority in the face of democratic discontent in Southeast Asia as well as concerns about the American domestic political system over the past few years. And while advocating for democracy can be seen as positioning Washington on the side of Southeast Asia’s young and vibrant people in a way that creates long-term “soft power” appeal, an overemphasis on values at the expense of interests can be also be costly in the short-term during a period of intensified U.S. competition.
Navigating the not-so-like-minded challenge on the democracy front will require customizing U.S. policy to the region’s realities. For instance, a more comprehensive governance agenda that focuses on the rights of people and on inclusivity, including gender equality and youth civic education (both of which were agenda items during last year’s Democracy Summit), can provide greater openings for engaging a wider array of countries beyond what are perceived to be areas targeted at specific regimes, such as combating digital authoritarianism or cracking down on corruption. With respect to countries facing democratic challenges, like Myanmar, this will require preserving some ability to indirectly shape outcomes in the country in ways that benefit the people while imposing restrictions on the regime, and understanding that U.S. allies and partners may play their own unique and valuable roles in this process even if their actions do not always align with those of Washington.
To be sure, moving beyond the like-minded in U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia in the context of the Indo-Pacific is easier said than done. Given the domestic constraints and vast array of foreign policy challenges that the Biden team faces, engaging more like-minded allies and partners initially might be seen as a way to lock in some quick wins before moving on to what are perceived to be more challenging countries. Furthermore, engagement is a two-way street, and countries within Southeast Asia which are seen as being not as like-minded may have to do their part as well to at least convince Washington that there is the prospect of greater alignment over time, particularly if they are smaller countries that lack the geopolitical heft to register limited U.S. attention.
But if the Biden administration is truly serious about a “focus on every corner” of the Indo-Pacific region, as it says in the newly-released strategy, like-mindedness must be balanced with a focus on flexibility and inclusion . In addition to accounting for prevailing political realities, it would also be a more likely path to advancing Washington’s interests, in terms of both breadth and depth, in regions like Southeast Asia.