Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--Is the U.S. strategy of reducing Russian and (especially) Chinese influence in Southeast Asia working? If the recent summit with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders in Washington is any indication, the answer has to be a no.
This speaks to the continued futility of a strategy of attempted exclusion in a time of greater autonomy and assertion in the region and the Global South more generally. For furthering American interests in the region, President Biden may be better served by a math lesson in addition rather than subtraction.
Much media attention after the summit was focused on the fact that the joint statement failed to condemn Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine. That should hardly have been a surprise.
The summit’s joint statement mentioned “freedom of navigation” and “open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture,” but did not include Washington’s pet phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” (though President Biden used it in his media remarks.) China was not explicitly referred to in either the statement or in President Biden’s subsequent remarks.
There is much that ASEAN and the U.S. agree on, but when it comes to China there is a clear (if rarely publicly expressed) difference. Washington routinely stresses “ASEAN centrality” and has stated that it does not seek to force Southeast Asian states to choose between the United States and China. But Washington’s actions on the ground tell a different story.
The United States’ played a key role in reviving the four nation Quad’s in 2017 and further strengthening it during the Biden presidency. The Quad is a grouping which also includes U.S. allies and partners Japan, Australia, and India with an implicit mission of countering China.
ASEAN states do have significant concerns about China. The Philippines and Vietnam have the most contentious maritime disputes. Chinese intrusions into Malaysian-claimed airspace and territorial waters and Indonesian-claimed EEZ have not gone down well in the region.
But the maritime disputes in the South China Sea are not a simple ASEAN v. China matter. Southeast Asian states have disagreements with each other. Taiwanese claims to the South China Sea are as sweeping as those of China’s — that is why both China and Taiwan rejected the international tribunal’s decision in the case won by the Philippines in 2016.
ASEAN’s efforts to evolve a Code of Conduct with China to stabilize these disputes have been slow going, partly due to Chinese recalcitrance. But this hasn’t stopped Southeast Asia and China from segmenting off these disputes from their turbocharged trajectory of trade. China trades about twice as much in value with ASEAN as the United States does (though the U.S. leads on investment.)
Over a decade, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative has delivered major infrastructural projects that the region values, such as the Laos-China high-speed railway, multiple infrastructure projects in Brunei, metro rail in Vietnam, and others. The Quad in comparison has little to show over the five years of its second wind, apart from recent Covid vaccine deliveries to the region.
The United States has had no response thus far to China’s compelling economic story for Southeast Asia. Dismissing the BRI as a neo-colonial debt trap is a major exaggeration and does not resonate in the region. The core of Washington’s geo-economic strategy, we are told, is the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” to be unveiled in a few weeks.
The IPEF’s payoffs to ASEAN states are unclear. The region has been growing strongly for nearly three decades through mainly greater trade and investment, rather than standard-setting. Will a slew of new standards benefit or hamper greater integration and prosperity? No wonder Southeast Asia has been generally lukewarm toward the IPEF.
The benefits to the United States are, however, clearer. Struggling to compete with China in many areas of economic engagement in the region, Washington may be looking to design an architecture that aims to exclude China and even fragment the structure of ASEAN by creating differential tiers of compliance with IPEF.
But the current U.S. strategy is likely to fail in Southeast Asia. Many ASEAN states are no close friends of China, but the region’s orientation is inherently nonaligned. Not a single ASEAN state has expressed interest in joining or formally associating with the Quad, and two of them have jointly criticized AUKUS.
In fact, inclusion is the secret sauce of ASEAN’s success. ASEAN member states are a mix of sharply different political systems and cultures. But that has not prevented the region from finding common ground and achieving peace and growing prosperity in the post-Cold War era. The region’s geopolitical math is defined by addition, not subtraction.
In a time of systemic crises – from climate change to stressed supply chains – the geopolitics of addition rather than subtraction ought also to be the watchword of the United States. There will be plenty of room for competition and furthering national interests within such a paradigm.
Washington will need to be far smarter in ensuring a major role for itself in the emerging multipolar world. The ASEAN way might offer some lessons.