The U.S. Must Prove Itself in Southeast Asia

The flags of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members in ASEAN headquarter at Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia. From left the flags of: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gunawan Kartapranata

By Narupat Rattanakit

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official visit to Taiwan has caused a ripple effect across the Taiwan Strait. Since her visit to the island, experts are now debating whether the United States is still committed to strategic ambiguity or transitioning to greater clarity.

Instead of confronting China alone, U.S. policymakers are now prioritizing assistance to their allies and partners in Asia. As the rivalry intensifies between the United States and China, with signs of decoupling beginning, U.S. strategy-makers are focused on earning the trust of its allies and partners in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. 

Southeast Asian countries are less aligned with the United States than their counterparts in Northeast Asia (i.e., South Korea and Japan). Japan and South Korea have often shared like-minded values with the United States, integrated U.S. economic and political models, and firm bilateral defense security ties.

In contrast, Southeast Asia utilizes a hedging strategy to maintain space between itself and major players in the international system, which is more relevant than ever as the region contends with the dueling wills of Chinese and American leaders. Some experts are calling for the United States to adopt an elusive balance strategy to mitigate this problem. 

However, a balanced commitment can only solve short-term distrust as negative perceptions of the United States still linger due to its history of cherry-picking, double standards, and cynicism. Like Southeast Asia, other major powers, such as India, are skeptical of the United States intentions despite being a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) member.

Recent U.S.-led multilateral arrangements of the Quad and the trilateral security pact, AUKUS, have made Southeast Asian countries more concerned with how the United States is intensifying the geopolitical atmosphere with China, which most are still reliant on its economy. Furthermore, Southeast Asia developed much of this skepticism because of America’s lack of commitment to bringing stability to the region.

The most prominent case of America’s stumbling into negative perceptions was during the Nixon administration. The Nixon Doctrine introduced a policy of “strategic retrenchment” whereby Washington reassessed overseas strategic priorities and streamlined defense spending and diplomatic commitments. But these commitments were largely geared toward Northeast Asia.

Still, in 1970, Nixon gave his speech titled “Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia,” which characterized American priorities in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of Vietnam. It illustrated clearly that the United States was focused on undermining the spread of communism with little regard for providing an economic framework to foster recovery after the war.

With its withdrawal from Vietnam, the United States had only left military infrastructure and token economic assistance to subvert communist insurrection. The United States gradually scaled back its regional presence and encouraged a Japanese hegemony there. As a surrogate for the United States, Japan played an influential role in Southeast Asia under the Fukuda Doctrine in the 1970s, prioritizing infrastructure and aid.

Decades later, under the Obama administration, the United States has returned with its “Pivot to Asia,” focusing on multilateralism engagement in the region. However, it shifted to focusing more on bilateral relations under the subsequent Trump administration. Despite these diplomatic overtures, Southeast Asia still holds a negative perception that lingers in distrust and resentment.

With the current U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry, the region is now struggling to balance both major powers. According to a survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think-tank, most Southeast Asians prefer the United States to China. Despite this, there has been an increase in Southeast Asians who “consider the U.S. not a responsible or reliable power.” The United States must learn lessons from Japan’s investment in the region as Japan continues to be the most trusted great power.

Given Japan’s economic assistance and contribution to the region in the past several decades, financial support and regional prosperity are paramount to this trust. Regional prosperity is one of the region’s key objectives because the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $3.2 trillion and is the third fastestgrowing Indo-Pacific economy in the past decade after China and India. To sustain its already impressive economic growth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will need to tackle restrictions on foreign investment and build critical foundations such as infrastructure, logistics, and workforce skills. 

One of the most damaging events to Southeast Asian perception of the United States was the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 when countries such as Thailand requested financial aid through the United States-run International Monetary Fund but to no avail. American support in developing crucial infrastructure and development could heal much of this distrust and encourage a greater regional partnership.

Experience has taught many Southeast Asian countries that the United States will advance its interests with little regard to the effects on others. However, the United States has proven to be the lesser of two evils largely due to Chinese action in the region. Still, if it seeks more significant commitments from Southeast Asia, it must earn a reputation as a true partner that values economic prosperity.

An aspect of the Biden administration’s Strategy, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), was launched during President Biden’s five-day trip to South Korea and Japan. Although Washington stresses that it is not an exclusive nor a formal free trade agreement, the economic framework provides an “addition” rather than an “alternative” option to existing arrangements. Therefore, Southeast Asian countries can sign on and still benefit from traditional free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) led by China and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP). 

While IPEF is still in its infancy, it focuses on the digital economy, supply chain security, clean energy, and anti-corruption, while proponents say it is designed to tackle 21st-century challenges. Nonetheless, the objective is clear: keep China out. At a meeting in early September, the ASEAN nations that have joined IPEF (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) demonstrated suspicion as to whether the United States can commit to these pillars by increasing its foreign direct investment (FDI) into the region.

The US-ASEAN Special Summit in May of this year and the long-awaited appointment of the U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN is a step in the right direction for Washington. However, these are not commitments; providing a substantive commitment is arduous but worthwhile to gain the necessary cooperation. One recommendation is that Washington must define its actionable commitments. By writing out American priorities for each country in the region (security, economic, infrastructure, or diplomatic) and operationalizing those commitments to align with their current and future concerns, the United States can establish trust in the region.

The United States must pursue a high level of engagement that respects ASEAN centrality to avoid and repeat the same disrespect shown during the Cold War and post-Cold War period. If the United States seeks to “Pivot to Asia” by developing solid partnerships and retaining its credibility in committing to a prosperous region, it must treat Southeast Asian countries like true partners.

Narupat Rattanakit is a Master’s student at American University studying the U.S. Foreign Policy. Narupat is also a writer for the Realist Review, Research Fellow at the Pericles Institute, and Research Intern at the East-West Center.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s