Brainstorm: Assessing US Southeast Asia Strategy: Between US-China Competition and the Indo-Pacific Shadow

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Assessing US Southeast Asia Strategy: Between US-China Competition and the Indo-Pacific Shadow

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BGA Deputy Head of Research Prashanth Parameswaran’s book on U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, entitled “Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy,” was recently published. The book develops an original “balance of commitment” foreign policy model to explain continuity and change in U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia across administrations and to help policymakers be attentive to the relationships between power, threats and resources in the U.S. domestic political system as well as calibrations of commitment level and distribution in Southeast Asia.

Below is a brief interview with Prashanth about how some of the book’s findings apply to contemporary developments in U.S. ties with Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region. The book’s findings are based on hundreds of conversations with policymakers and experts in the United States and Southeast Asia, personal experiences across nearly two decades and primary and secondary source material across a half-century.

Is Southeast Asia convinced that the U.S. is fully back in the wake of the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the launch of the Indo-Pacific Framework?  Or are countries hedging out of concern that political divisiveness in Washington and the possibility of Donald Trump returning in 2024 could once again derail relations?

My sense is that Southeast Asia is generally receptive to the efforts of U.S. President Joe Biden and his team so far to step up commitment to the region. As I argue in the book, this tends to be the case initially with a new administration that comes in with a Southeast Asia focus in mind, and this is especially true when it comes to areas such as diplomatic outreach and multilateral engagement, where the gains can be seen most visibly in the quickest time. There is also a general appreciation that U.S. commitments are harder to forge in the current context of domestic and global challenges, including political polarization at home and global challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That said, 2024 does still factor into longer-term calculations about U.S. commitment to the region, particularly when it comes to making decisions with a longer time horizon. There’s bound to be some of this given the ebbs and flows of U.S. commitment historically that we’ve seen going back to the end of the Vietnam War. But there’s also the recent example of the 2016 elections which offer a cautionary tale for those who might assume that rising U.S. commitment is likely to continue to increase in a linear fashion irrespective of who is in power. The stakes are also higher given that China’s shadow on the region is getting bigger relatively speaking despite all the missteps Beijing continues to make.

Is Southeast Asia ready to fully engage with the U.S. or is the region hampered by the fact that two original ASEAN members – Thailand and Malaysia – are distracted by domestic political maneuvering ahead of upcoming elections?

There is a clear demand signal from Southeast Asian countries for more engagement across powers to meet needs and collaborate, whether it be on immediate issues like COVID-19 and supply chains or longer-term ones such as the digital and green transitions. The Biden team has recognized this, and you’re seeing some of the bilateral and regional engagements reflect that.

I do think domestic politics play a significant role in Southeast Asia in terms of shaping how individual countries engage the United States, as it does for Washington as well. Thailand and Malaysia are two examples of that – the former where there’s been a prolonged sense of transition that the U.S.-Thai alliance has had to adjust to, and the latter where multiple changes of governments may allow for some quick inroads but may not necessarily provide the best environment to forge more long-term progress in the overall relationship. We can point to some signs of progress in each of those cases, but the challenge is there.

What do Southeast Asian countries want from the U.S.? Can the U.S. really compete with China, Southeast Asia’s close neighbor and largest trading partner?

The question of Southeast Asian needs and U.S. competitiveness is an important one. The big trend in Southeast Asia in the past decade or so is not that the United States has pivoted to the region, but that a whole range of powers have strengthened their commitment there in recognition of the opportunities and challenges Southeast Asia presents, including Australia, India Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and key European countries. The geopolitical landscape is much more competitive in that sense. And China is making inroads throughout Southeast Asia in very granular ways across the board, and its size and proximity mean that this will undoubtedly change regional calculations over time.

The United States has some significant competitive advantages when it comes to meeting Southeast Asian needs, including its military weight, size of its market, technological prowess, innovation and educational institutions. But it has limitations too, such as geographic distance.  The way for the United States to compete with China is to leverage U.S. strengths to offer the best ways for Southeast Asian countries to make their own choices and meet their needs. That means raising and sustaining U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia in a comprehensive and granular way across the board and matching this with resources. It also means telling the story of U.S. commitment in a compelling way to Southeast Asia’s people, extending out to the very local and rural parts of the region where the battle for hearts and minds will be forged in the years to come. And it will require working with U.S. allies and partners which are themselves more involved in the region, as they are a traditional source of U.S. strength which China does not enjoy.