Asean-US balancing act

As they prepare for a summit next month, both sides should reflect on where they can make the most meaningful improvements in their relationship.

The commitment of the United States to Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam War has been subject to a series of ebbs, flows and imbalances. History shows that it tends to wane whenever Washington is distracted by other global developments.

American policymakers have struggled to sustain their commitment to the region amid their growing focus on security in the post-9/11 era. The much-touted “pivot” to Asia, meanwhile, was hampered by a lack of resources in the aftermath of the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

As the Biden administration advances its Indo-Pacific strategy, it faces a familiar challenge that US policymakers have grappled with for the past half-century: sustaining a level of foreign policy commitment to Southeast Asia that matches its growing importance amid other domestic, regional and global priorities.

Amid all the interrelationships between power, threats and resources that shape decisions in Washington, the biggest challenge is sustaining an approach that serves US interests and meets regional needs.

“The summit will not specifically discuss Myanmar but … will be a discussion of what we have accomplished so far and the future direction of Asean and US cooperation,” says Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah. SUPPLIED

That challenge will be front and centre on May 12 and 13 when leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the US meet in Washington. Officially, the summit is a commemoration of the two sides’ 45-year relationship.

Cambodia, the 2022 Asean chair, said in a recent statement that participants will “reiterate our shared commitment to uphold Asean centrality and unity through the existing Asean-led mechanisms, as well as to foster mutual trust and confidence to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in the region”.

The event will be just the second summit of its kind, after the first one held in Sunnylands, California in 2016 by former president Barack Obama.

Asean leaders and President Joe Biden are expected to discuss ways to intensify cooperation in areas such as the Covid-19 response and global health security, climate change, sustainable development, maritime cooperation, human capital development, education and people-to-people ties, as well as connectivity and economic engagement. They will also exchange views on regional and international issues of common interest and concern, according to the statement.

Most Southeast Asian heads of government are expected to attend, among them Indonesian President Joko Widodo. But the head of the Myanmar junta, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has not been invited because of US opposition to his military coup. And outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a frequent critic of the US, is also expected to be a no-show.

“The summit will not specifically discuss Myanmar but it will be a commemoration of 45 years of Asean-US ties and what we have accomplished so far and the future direction of Asean and US cooperation,” Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said in a briefing last Thursday in Jakarta.

The event will be Mr Biden’s second encounter with Southeast Asian leaders, following his participation in a virtual Asean-US summit in October last year.

“It is not like the US does not have any friends in Southeast Asia, but it does not have friends that are really in line with its approach,” says Muhadi Sugiono, an international relations lecturer at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. SUPPLIED


While the Cambodian statement said the Washington summit would “chart the future direction of Asean-US relations and seek to further enhance strategic partnership for the mutual benefits of the peoples of Asean and the United States”, analysts say it may not necessarily be a reflection of the US commitment to Southeast Asia. Some believe Washington has more of a one-way agenda.

The main aim of the Biden administration might be to mobilise greater support from Asean member states, given that not all of them back the US approach, notably for its Indo-Pacific commitment, said Muhadi Sugiono, an international relations lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

He pointed out that Asean has its own, more inclusive Indo-Pacific outlook, with the regional bloc in the driving seat and without an inclination to a certain side. This does not align with Washington’s Indo-Pacific vision which seeks — even if it doesn’t say so explicitly — to exclude China as part of its containment strategy against its main geopolitical rival.

“It is even more pressing now with Russia’s invasion to Ukraine, especially given that Indonesia has not fully aligned itself with US on the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” Mr Sugiono told Asia Focus. “So, hosting the summit is one of the US strategies in a bid to get Asean member states to realign their position with the US.

“The US is in need of a friend in Southeast Asia to contain China and, more recently, to support its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is not like the US does not have any friends in Southeast Asia, but it does not have friends that are really in line with its approach,” he added.

Prashanth Parameswaran, a Washington-based Fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the May summit could not really be compared to its 2016 predecessor held by the Obama administration.

That event capped a series of achievements and policy successes of Mr Obama’s two terms in office, Mr Parameswaran said in a recent online discussion hosted by the East West Center in Washington.

The Biden administration is trying to tap into that energy, which he said would be good, but it should not be allowed to distract from other things that are going on.

In his view, the Biden administration should focus on issues on which there is more potential for success, and where is more convergence between the US and Southeast Asia, such as digital technology, energy, climate, sustainability and human capital.

The latter is of special interest to Indonesia, where the majority of its 274 million population are in the productive age bracket. This demographic dividend — with 10 productive citizens supporting less than five citizens who are unproductive — is expected to last until 2037.

“I think you want to go where the traction is in the region,” said Mr Parameswaran, the author of a new book titled Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S. Southeast Asia Strategy. “A good way to think about this is just [picturing] removing the United States from the equation, and what is happening in Southeast Asia.

“I think it’s really good that we are having this summit early on rather than sometime toward the end of the Biden administration.”

He noted that the US pivot to Asia under the Obama administration took place during a period of extreme constraints but had some successes.

“We saw unprecedented levels of US engagement established in Southeast Asia that deserve a tremendous amount of credit, including regular attendance at … the East Asia Summit,” he said.

“Those were significant gains for US policy, but at the same time, I think that US policymakers found it very challenging to actually resource some of these new commitments, particularly on the security side.”

Free trade is one of the best ways for the United States to stay committed formally to regional economies. But the Trans-Pacific Partnership, initiated by the Obama administration, ended up being abandoned by his successor, Donald Trump.

The TPP, initially envisioned as a way to contain the growing influence of China, has since been renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and has 11 members. Japan is now seen as its main driving force but in September last year, China formally applied to join.

China is already the largest participant in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade deal, which also includes the 10 Asean economies.

“It’s a fact that on the economic side, there are so few commitments that the United States has formed in Southeast Asia,” said Mr Parameswaran. “There is the US-Singapore free trade agreement, but apart from that, it’s really tough to find those commitments, and a lot are by the private sector or individual US government agencies.”

According to data from the Asean Secretariat, the US is the second largest trade partner of the regional bloc after China and one of the major sources of investment in Asean with US$35 billion in investment value in 2020.

Even if the US is focused on the China challenge, it is imperative to not lose sight of the opportunity in the “extremely young and vibrant region” of Southeast Asia, Mr Parameswaran said.

“I think a lot of the opportunities are in specific economic sectors and people-to-people ties, that’s really where the energy is.

“Even if we can’t think about big things to do in US-Asean relations and it’s tough to do those things, I think we can start sectoral and build out from there.”

“It’s a fact that on the economic side, there are so few commitments that the United States has formed in Southeast Asia,” says Prashanth Parameswaran, a Washington-based Fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. SUPPLIED


US policymakers, in Mr Parameswaran’s view, should be more attentive to managing power shifts and perceptions of them. Washington also needs to reassure the region about its own staying power while being cognisant of other regional power shifts.

Part of the equation involves blunting predictions of US decline by projecting a sense of consistent internal confidence in US power, about which even close US friends such as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have expressed concerns of late.

Another component is developing a consistent foreign policy narrative across administrations. It should frame US-China competition as less a bipolar contest and more a question about whether Washington and its allies and partners can collectively shape a multipolar order rather than one dominated by China, which would be better received in more Southeast Asian capitals.

Second, US policymakers should approach threats in a clear and measured manner. Though Washington’s status as a global power means threats in other parts of the world affect how it views Southeast Asia, the challenge is managing this. The period after 9/11 showed how difficult this can be.

Mr Parameswaran recommends developing a sustainable “threat hierarchy” in US policy that prioritises Indo-Pacific-related challenges, while also dealing with crises that may come up in other regions, wit appropriate resources devoted to each area.

Another key is maintaining a “threat-opportunity balance” that ensures that worries about China’s inroads or democratic rollback do not detract from an affirmative, longer-term US vision for Southeast Asia that recognises the region’s dynamism and vigour.

US policymakers should also find ways to do more with less to sustain commitments during periods of resource constraints, he said.

Managing all this will partly require deft coalition-building at home and abroad, particularly in areas like economic policy which requires alignment from a greater array of US government agencies, Congress, the private sector and other stakeholders.

“It will also require creative messaging to ensure that US commitment gaps from time to time are understood by Southeast Asian publics that may not be as familiar with the intricacies of US domestic politics, be it the reasons for changes in line items in the US defence budget or the slow confirmation of US ambassadors,” said Mr Parameswaran.

Turning to the shape of US commitment itself, he said US policymakers should find ways to raise and sustain increases in commitment levels to Southeast Asia. This requires broadening and deepening binding commitments beyond those that exist today, be it treaty alliances with Thailand and the Philippines or US presidential attendance at Asean summits.

One pathway is to institutionalise the incremental gains already being made, be it strategic and comprehensive partnerships with states such as Indonesia and Vietnam, or the growth of ministerial dialogues in sectoral areas that can create more whole-of-government buy-in on Southeast Asian engagement.

This can be reinforced by longer-term efforts, such as elevating more Southeast Asians to higher levels of Asia policy in the US government and advancing a whole-of-society understanding of Southeast Asia’s importance by spreading awareness about the region at home.

US policymakers can also better balance ideals and interests by focusing on aspects that have greater alignment with Southeast Asian governments and publics and can generate a two-way conversation that also acknowledges US limitations, such as on diversity, equality and inclusion.

“To be sure, the persistence of the US commitment challenge in Southeast Asia across the past half-century suggests that overcoming it will be far from an easy task. Nonetheless, given the rising importance of Southeast Asia as a region and to US interests, the pursuit of these elusive balances … is an endeavour that is worth undertaking in the years to come,” Mr Parameswaran concluded.