The Biden Administration, China and Southeast Asia

Nov 24, 2020

With its mixture of arrogance, ignorance and browbeating, the Trump administration has left a dark cloud over US-Southeast Asian relations. But there is a silver lining. This nadir provides a low-hanging fruit of diplomatic success that the Biden administration can easily and quickly pick.

The decline of US soft power in Southeast Asia was already in progress before the election of US President Donald J. Trump. But his administration certainly accelerated it. Indeed, with its mixture of arrogance, ignorance and browbeating, the Trump administration has left a dark cloud over US-Southeast Asian relations. But there is a silver lining. This nadir provides a low-hanging fruit of diplomatic success that the Biden administration can easily and quickly pick. The U.S.’s greatest asset is its values. As President-elect Biden puts it “the U.S. should lead not by the example of power but by the power of example.” This should be a mantra for his administration’s approach to individual Southeast Asian countries and their Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The relative decline in U.S. soft power accelerated when the Trump administration withdrew from the US proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership economic pact. Adding to the decline of US influence in Southeast Asia, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gave notice that he was terminating the 65-year old US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. While this notice has since been suspended twice, the fact that it occurred at all and his regime survived says much about current US influence in Asia.

Under Trump, the U.S. raised tension and pressured ASEAN members with anti-China rhetoric, proposed anti-China coalitions, enhanced displays of its military power and the threat of its use against China in the South China Sea. Basically, the U.S. is saying you have to choose between us and China.

Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 13 July statement on US South China Sea policy and subsequent rhetoric seemed to Southeast Asian countries unnecessarily confrontational and an unwelcome ultimatum of “you are with us or against us”.

His last official trip to Asia was a mission to persuade countries to join it in an anti-China coalition under the cover of the US concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). This included a stop in Indonesia the de facto leader of ASEAN. But Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo told Pompeo that he wanted the U.S. “ to understand the interests of developing countries, Muslim countries and Southeast Asian countries.’ As for the U.S.’s FOIP construct that excludes China, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi reminded Pompeo of Indonesia’s “free and independent” foreign policy which prioritizes inclusivity, nonalignment and ASEAN centrality [emphasis added]. She “reemphasized the need to pursue inclusive co-operation amid this challenging time”. Retno pointedly added that Indonesia’s relations with the U.S. could not be “taken for granted”.

The trip’s mission and message were the wrong tone and tenor at the wrong time to the wrong audience. For many Southeast Asians, Pompeo’s style was perceived as arrogant and offensive. The mission seemed based on the assumption that most Southeast Asian nations share the US view that China is a dangerous and predatory power. Pompeo discovered that this assumption is false and that resistance to join the U.S. in its struggle against China is quite deep and widespread. Proof can be found in their refusal to join the U.S. in its sanctions against Chinese companies involved in construction in the South China Sea. Moreover, his message was tone-deaf to a region suffering from a pandemic with its economy in free fall and its critical need for good relations with its principal economic partner China.

US President-elect Joe Biden argues that “America first has made America alone”.  Indeed, to ASEAN nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra sounded like ‘you are on your own’. The upshot is that the Trump administration has seriously damaged US ASEAN-relations. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said Trump’s ‘America First’ world view “changed perspectives both within the U.S. and overseas about how broadly the world’s predominant superpower has an interest in maintaining global stability”.

Confirming this impression, Trump was absent from three successive ASEAN Summits including the virtual one held 12-15 November. This caused a loss of face for ASEAN leaders—something not easily forgotten or forgiven in Asia.

What do ASEAN members want? Most importantly they want respect for their interests. Rather than choose between China and the U.S. they want to balance and benefit from both. While many may be more ideologically aligned with the U.S., they have economic and longer-term geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China – even with U.S. backing.   They do not want to lose their collective ‘centrality’ in managing regional security and are afraid that both the US version of a FOIP and the Quad – a loose incipient anti-China block would undermine that.

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So what can the Biden administration do to rectify the situation? The goal of achieving US interests in Asia will not change. But the Biden team can be the good cop to Trump’s bad cop. Biden has said the U.S. must lead by example. So it should genuinely listen to the interests and desires of these nations and respond accordingly where and when it is in their mutually agreed national interests. This would demonstrate the respect that has been sorely lacking.

First, It needs to stop the browbeating and trying to force these nations to choose between it and China. Second, it should reach some sort of an understanding with China that reduces tension in the region and the South China Sea. Reduction of tension could be linked to step by step bargain. This is greatly desired by the leaders of ASEAN and would invigorate their faith in America to do the ‘right thing’.

Second rolling back the Trump administration’s increased frequency of its confrontational Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and close-in intelligence probes in, over and under China’s waters would send a positive signal.

Third, it should give ASEAN and its leaders more ‘face’. To reset relations Biden should meet with them early on, listen carefully and respond positively where he can.

Fourth, ASEAN needs economic – not military – help. While military assistance may -where truly desired by the recipient – accompany economic assistance, the U.S. needs to refocus its policies and assistance programs on the latter—with no strings attached.

Most of these countries like and admire much about the U.S. political, social and economic systems. They do want to be friends. But its recent style and demands have made them very wary that they are being used like pawns in a great game with China.

The reset will take some time. In the end, it will be genuine respect for the interests and desires of these struggling countries that will win the day. The proof will be in the pudding. The sooner the US foreign policy establishment realizes this and implements it, the better its relations with ASEAN will be.

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