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Winning the China-US Narrative Competition in Southeast Asia

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Winning the China-US Narrative Competition in Southeast Asia

Washington needs to invest more in telling its story to win the regional battle for hearts and minds.

Winning the China-US Narrative Competition in Southeast Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son during President Joe Biden’s state visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, September 10, 2023.

Credit: X/Secretary Antony Blinken

“Power over opinion is therefore not less essential for political purposes than military and economic power,” the prominent British political scientist and historian E.H. Carr wrote of the period of rising conflict during the two world wars. Yet a century or so later, as China-U.S. competition intensifies in Southeast Asia, there continues to be relatively less attention paid to the narrative component of that competition when it comes to engaging with publics compared to the military and economic realms. This is despite the reality that the narrative space is arguably more contested than ever, with diminishing attention spans, rising disinformation, and diversifying perspectives including those from the Global South.

In this context, winning the China-U.S. narrative competition in Southeast Asia and elsewhere will require much more investment by Washington in telling a story about the U.S. role in the region that convinces not just policymakers, but publics as well in a battle for hearts and minds.

The core of the traditional U.S. narrative in Southeast Asia derives from the notion of Washington being the architect of the current post-World War II rules-based international order that has been the foundation for regional peace and prosperity. This U.S. role is broadly appreciated by the region’s policymakers, even if the U.S. historical record in Southeast Asian countries themselves is more mixed. In recent years, U.S. administrations have reinforced this with gains in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) that is more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient, which involves competing with a China trying to undermine this order while also cooperating with countries on transnational challenges.

This FOIP narrative contrasts with China’s narrative that U.S. designs, including FOIP, are trying to avert U.S. decline and thwart Beijing’s rise, rather than addressing troubling aspects of China’s behavior as Washington contends. For China, this rise, in what might be termed its Community of Common Destiny narrative, is natural given its history and status as benign on aggregate for Southeast Asia, even though the region itself has mixed views Beijing’s vision amid a trust deficit. China also attempts to frame Washington as an extraregional actor stirring up regional trouble, while at the same time promoting “Asia for Asians” initiatives that in fact reinforce its own dominance.

Yet this FOIP narrative is being advanced in an increasingly competitive and challenging landscape. Globally, some Global South countries are questioning aspects of the current order’s “freeness” and “openness” when it comes to areas such as health equity and the energy transition. Regionally, while increased U.S. commitment is welcomed, there are anxieties in some circles about how more confrontational aspects of a FOIP vision may disrupt Asia’s growth, and higher expectations of Washington as other major powers like Japan and the European Union step up in areas like infrastructure and trade.

Domestically, beyond the hype around Donald Trump, the broader structural trend, by some counts, is that there is relatively more ambivalence among the U.S. population and in both political parties about supporting the more traditionally active U.S. role that a FOIP narrative assumes. Periodic incidents can also reveal the challenges of strategic competition being advanced in a U.S. system of divided government, with cases in point being the domestic politics that derailed the trade pillar of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or the backlash over congressional questioning of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s citizenship. And functionally, fake news proliferating across the information space amid flashpoints like the Russia-Ukraine War and the Israel-Hamas conflict can quickly undercut even the best U.S. narrative.

While strengthening the U.S. position in narrative competition will require inroads in various areas, three stand out. First, the FOIP vision should be paired with a clearer value proposition that the United States is offering the people of Southeast Asia that is no more than a couple of words long and can resonate. An example of this is Japan’s tagline of being a “trusted partner,” which emphasizes Japan’s comparative advantage of trust (relative to China).

For the United States, a value proposition would ideally highlight the country’s unique comprehensive network power, which extends outside of Washington through avenues like its cutting-edge universities and innovative startups. Some avenues have been highlighted in initiatives like “Billion Futures” – referring to the 1 billion people of the United States and Southeast Asia. Yet this could be emphasized in other realms in a more integrated manner. For example, demonstrating U.S. “network power” in semiconductors – combining areas like government policy, business investment and educational expertise – can utilize whole-of-society approaches to assist countries building comprehensive ecosystems like Indonesia, the Philippines, or Vietnam. This would also highlight U.S. economic engagement and counter perceptions in segments of Southeast Asian publics that it is a “security power” relative to China as an “economic power,” which understates longstanding U.S. economic links in areas like private investment.

Second, the United States should engage more directly with Southeast Asian publics to reinforce the significance of U.S. policies and counter disinformation and misperceptions. U.S. diplomatic efforts have continued on the ground, from refuting disinformation of U.S. interference in Thai politics to penning a joint op-ed in Malaysia clarifying the purpose of AUKUS.

In some cases, engagement by top U.S. officials would help. Consider the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit held in Washington, D.C. in May 2022. Despite the White House’s best efforts, the summit was drowned out by media reporting around the initial announcement hiccup, subsequent rescheduling, and geopolitical differences. As valuable as a U.S. president’s time is, there are ways to leverage summits like these to message publics, including publishing an op-ed – separately or jointly – the latter being at play when President Joe Biden did so for the Quad Summit back in 2021.

Even if one discounts China’s media engagement wins due to its different system, such senior engagement in public diplomacy is more common even among U.S. allies. One case in point is South Korea’s former President Moon Jae-in’s 2019 op-ed before he made ASEAN countries the destination of his first overseas trip in office. Notably, Moon published this via the Asia News Network, a coalition of Asian newspapers, which further boosted its distribution.

Third, the United States should better explain connections between its domestic system and foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Seasoned observers including Singapore’s ex-top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan have noted that segments of Southeast Asian publics are not as intimately familiar with the messy dynamics of U.S. domestic politics as some in Washington may assume. Other potential areas of focus abound. One is conveying complexities in the U.S. approach to the Israel-Gaza war. While there are legitimate differences in U.S. policy and that of some Southeast Asian governments like Indonesia and Malaysia, there is also a need to emphasize, as some officials have begun to, that simplistic narratives about U.S. unflinching support for Israel conceal more complicated domestic realities, including the questioning of decades-old U.S. policy by some government employees and segments of the public including younger Americans.

Another is a humbler U.S. approach to democracy and human rights paired with acknowledgments about the flaws in Washington’s own political system, which is critical as some countries go through less democratic periods such as Cambodia or Thailand. Examples already exist even in the public domain. One is a 2015 address by former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar on U.S. challenges in tackling race. This led to an organic, two-way discussion with students addressing sensitive issues such as LGBT rights and free speech rather than a one-way U.S. lecture on another country’s faults.

To be sure, the idea of Washington investing more in this narrative contest in Southeast Asia is not without its challenges. Abroad, particularly in less democratic environments, engaging publics more actively can draw scrutiny from governments in power, especially on political and social issues that are deemed controversial. There are also legitimate, decades-old debates about what kinds of public diplomacy work best in engaging foreign publics, and cross-sectoral conversations including among U.S. allies about how much governments themselves should engage in it relative to relying on trusted interlocutors or the adjudication of these issues in the public square. At home, the messiness of the U.S. political system and transitions between administrations in increasingly prolonged campaigns can also complicate the ability to sustain particular narrative lines. And in a context of what has been framed as a global China-U.S. competition, Southeast Asia will also be competing with other subregions for the very attention and resources in Washington required to power a more intense U.S. focus on engaging publics.

Yet these challenges reinforce the case for more attention to the narrative component of China-U.S. competition, rather than less, in order to address shifts, debates, and constraints both at home and abroad. While the United States has built up tremendous historical goodwill across segments of policymakers and publics in Southeast Asia, it would be complacent for Washington to simply assume that this will continue to translate into majority pro-U.S. sentiment in a decades-long China-U.S. competition.

Underinvesting in the battle for hearts and minds today risks complicating the U.S. quest for strategic defense links and economic partnerships in a dynamic and strategic region tomorrow. Despite U.S. limitations at home and abroad, the good news for Washington is that it has a good story to tell and the skills, capabilities, and talent to tell that story if it chooses to do so. The extent to which the United States invests in this will help shape the trajectory of a vital component of China-U.S. strategic competition in Southeast Asia in the coming years.