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The US in Southeast Asia: Less Drinking, More Thinking

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

The US in Southeast Asia: Less Drinking, More Thinking

Under President Joe Biden, Washington has made considerable progress in its relations with the region, but clear weak points remain.

The US in Southeast Asia: Less Drinking, More Thinking

U.S. President Joe Biden poses with leaders from the ASEAN member states at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, May 12, 2022.

Credit: The White House

If one were to assess the United States’ change in approach toward Southeast Asia over the past decades, it might be worth examining two movies on the Vietnam War, made more than 30 years apart.

In an iconic scene in the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola classic “Apocalypse Now,” a surf-loving fanatic colonel leads his air cavalry of helicopter gunships to hose a Vietnamese village with missiles and miniguns, to the beat of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Here, America is portrayed as brash, full of bravado and hubris.

Fast forward 43 years later, and the 2022 Netflix film “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” portrays a U.S. merchant mariner during the Vietnam War, played by a likeable but goofy Zac Efron, who decides to go out on a limb to deliver Pabst Blue beers to his mates fighting in Vietnam. Full of patriotism and passion about America’s war in Vietnam, he goes through a series of experiences in Vietnam that causes him to be more circumspect about the war there. Going home, he talks with his anti-war protester sister and concedes that he needs to do “less drinking, more thinking.”

Uncle Sam has gone all Zac Efron on Southeast Asia in recent years. In the 1990s and 2000s, Washington pooh-poohed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its multilateral platforms, preferring its network of bilateral alliances instead. Granted, American officials still dismiss ASEAN’s tardy and cumbersome decision-making processes, but they are willing to work with the organization because they have to. Simply put, if Washington wants a network of allies and partners which can manage China’s rise, ASEAN – being at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific – is indispensable.

I got a sense of this speaking to a senior U.S. diplomat at a regional conference recently. Before the U.S. released its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2022, Washington conducted “extensive consultations” with Southeast Asian countries. “It’s about listening and understanding, and hearing about the real priorities of the region,” she said.

To its credit, Uncle Sam is listening. Washington doled out the goods in vaccines and climate change, and is now rolling out initiatives in infrastructure, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery.

And across the region, a multi-layered network of deterrence vis-a-vis China is being mapped out by Washington and its allies. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Australia, Japan, India and the U.S., has been largely eschewed by ASEAN, which views the grouping as an instrument to contain China.

Now, however, there are formal and ad hoc collaborations involving some Southeast Asian countries and Quad members. One example is the U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral, involving the meeting of their national security advisors and joint maritime drills. Another involves the individual Quad members India, Japan and the U.S. donating naval, coast guard and fishery patrol vessels to Vietnam, to enable it to guard against Chinese maritime encroachments.

The trilateral Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security pact, was once seen to be destabilizing by countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. But the two countries have taken on more accommodating towards the deal. They have emphasized that AUKUS should support regional peace and stability – a position that mirrors Singapore’s position.

And the fact that South Korea and Japan, two U.S. allies which have been dogged by historical issues and distrust, can get together in a trilateral with the U.S. vis-a-vis North Korea and China is another case in point. The Spirit of Camp David statement underscores the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, something that would not have been lost on the Chinese.

That said, there are limits to how far Washington can push in the region its goal to manage China’s rise. Three outstanding issues come to mind. First, Washington would find it an uphill task to corral together a network of allies and partners in Southeast Asia to counter China. In a recent report on U.S.-Southeast Asian relations, the Asia Society’s Task Force observed that it was “remarkable (and worrying)” that Southeast Asian governments appear “relatively unaware or unwilling” to acknowledge the threat posed by China’s United Front, disinformation, political influence, and intelligence activities in the region.

But the report’s authors answered the question themselves: the sanguine Southeast Asian approach toward such Chinese activities could be due to an opacity of information, and more importantly, informed by China’s extensive state-to-state relations with Southeast Asian countries.

To wit, Southeast Asian countries are largely equal-opportunity maximizers of national interest: they do not care if they “choose” China or the U.S., as long as a choice nets them tangible benefits.

A June speech by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister of maritime and investment affairs, spoke volumes. Some American friends had asked him why he had gone to China to learn about how to develop downstream industries in the electric vehicle value chain. His reply: “We will go to whoever can share their technologies and invest. But we’d also love to go to the U.S. or anywhere.”

In short, Southeast Asian countries are less dogmatic about whether they go to China or the U.S. Thailand, for example, decided to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework because it deemed that it could reap tangible benefits from it.

Second, Washington needs to consider the consequences of its decoupling and de-risking strategy on China’s relations with Southeast Asia.

To begin with, many U.S. partners in Southeast Asia are dissatisfied with Washington’s turn inward, as reflected by its abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the imposition of protectionist measures such as export restrictions, punitive tariffs and industrial policies primed at reducing the market shares of companies in East Asia deemed to be unconducive to the “rules-based international order.”

To bemoan Washington’s withdrawal from the TPP would be trite, given that there has been a turn against multilateral trade initiatives in the U.S. It is also unlikely that Washington will return to the successor pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, any time soon.

Still, Washington needs to demonstrate how trade, investment, and economic integration function outside its “small yard, high fence” strategy aimed at protecting fundamental technologies from China. My colleague Lee Sue-Ann cites a notable example: Washington’s deepening cooperation with Vietnam in areas such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors.

Time is not on Washington’s side. One study shows that the U.S. might be redirecting its demand from China to other countries, say Mexico and some Southeast Asian countries, but production in these places now relies even more on Chinese inputs. As Southeast Asian exports to the U.S. have risen, their imports of intermediate inputs from China have exploded. It was found that four major solar suppliers in Southeast Asia were conducting minor processing of Chinese products that were effectively circumventing U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods. In effect, U.S. protectionism measures have the perverse effect of pushing U.S. partners closer to China, undermining the American grand strategy of corralling allies and partners to balance China.

Third and lastly, it is important for Washington to remember that the president needs to show up at ASEAN meetings to demonstrate American will and resolve. Joe Biden’s absence from the recent ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in August was instructive. Granted, the U.S.’ consistent policies toward Southeast Asia have not changed one bit because of the president’s changes in travel plans.

Still, the absence speaks volumes, as it means that Washington is valuing other partners more. Biden visited India for the G-20 meetings because New Delhi, a founding member of the Quad, is instrumental in managing the China threat. Biden then visited Hanoi, because Vietnam stands at the frontlines of a coalition to counter China along Beijing’s periphery.

Biden’s record of interactions with ASEAN leaders pales in comparison to those of Barack Obama, who ended his term hosting the special U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ summit in Sunnylands in 2016 – an apogee in relations. Obama met all 10 ASEAN leaders in his first year and a total of six times during his two terms. The demand signal for greater U.S. presence in the region will only increase, despite Washington’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and more recently, the war between Israel and Hamas.

In short, the train might have already left the station. On its relations with Southeast Asia, Washington to its credit has already done “less drinking, more thinking.” Whether it can address the weak points in U.S.-Southeast Asia relations is another matter .