Southeast Asian states don’t want to be part of any US-China rivalry
The Biden administration has been trying to play catch-up in Southeast Asia, a region that the United States has largely neglected in recent decades. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Indonesia was meant to make up for the perceived snubbing of the country during earlier visits to the region by Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Taken together with his later visit to Malaysia, it was a welcome sign that the administration understands that it hasn’t been doing enough to improve U.S. relations with major states in the region. Unfortunately, Blinken’s speech in Jakarta underscored how little Washington understands the concerns of regional governments and reinforced the impression that the United States still views these countries mostly as means to a larger anti-Chinese end.
Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s “vision” for the Indo-Pacific, but he offered remarkably few details for what this would mean in practice. Blinken described several aspirations that the United States has for the region, but he did not flesh out much of a policy agenda to realize them. As Sebastian Strangio observed, the speech was “frustratingly vague as to its specifics.” Much of his speech was laden with familiar catchphrases about the “rules-based order” and the “free and open Indo-Pacific” that don’t give regional governments very much useful information about what they can expect from the United States. The most common objection to the Biden administration’s “vision” statement from analysts was that it wasn’t a strategy at all, but just a wish list of things that they would like to see happen.
The U.S. approach to the region is still focused mostly on building up military capabilities as part of the administration’s so-called “strategic competition” with China. Blinken namechecked the AUKUS security partnership with Britain and Australia, but showed no awareness that many Southeast Asian nations, including his Indonesian hosts, have serious reservations about further militarization of their region by outside powers. Some of the same policies that Blinken boasted about are cause for deep trepidation among many of the states that he was trying to court. If anyone at the State Department advised him to offer reassurances on this score, Blinken didn’t follow the advice.
Blinken also paid lip service to the “centrality” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and pledged to deepen U.S. ties with the organization, but beyond that he had little to say about the organization’s role in regional diplomacy and security. That regional security is more threatened now than it has been in decades, as The Quincy Institute’s Sarang Shidore explained earlier this year. The United States has contributed to the problem through what Van Jackson has called its “military-first” approach.
The lack of a significant U.S. economic agenda for the region remains the main weakness in the administration’s policy. There was practically nothing in the Jakarta speech that would convince regional governments that this is going to change anytime soon. As Jonathan Stromseth of the Brookings Institution told The New York Times this week, “The Achilles’ heel of U.S. policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the U.S. in trade and infrastructure investment.”
Blinken’s promise to work with regional governments to “deliver the high-quality, high-standards infrastructure that people deserve” is a bit difficult to take seriously when the United States struggles mightily to provide that infrastructure in our own country. The Biden administration has already made clear that it does not intend to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that tells us that U.S. economic engagement will continue to lag behind.
As he has done before, Blinken insisted that “the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down,” but this strains credulity when Washington directs almost all its criticism at China. The secretary said that he is not talking about a “contest between a U.S.-centric region or a China-centric region,” but that is exactly the contest the Biden administration has conjured up in other contexts. Other states will naturally be suspicious of this rhetoric when it is so clearly at odds with what the U.S. is doing the rest of the time.
The Chinese government predictably wasn’t buying any of it and attacked Blinken as a “saboteur that drives wedges between regional countries.” Setting China up as the foil to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” may be effective in mobilizing opposition to China among existing allies, but it is unlikely to appeal to Southeast Asian states that wish to continue hedging between the two major powers. Because rising U.S.-Chinese tensions are alarming to these states, the United States hurts itself in the region every time that it contributes to making those tensions worse.
The goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is itself rather far-fetched when we consider that many, if not most, of the governments in the region are authoritarian and illiberal regimes. The United States has very limited means to promote political change in any of these countries. If “we mean that on an individual level, that people will be free in their daily lives and live in open societies,” as Blinken claimed, that is an extremely ambitious long-term goal, and it is doubtful that most regional governments will welcome the interference that comes with it.
Despite the administration’s rhetorical emphasis on diplomatic engagement, U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia has often been missing in action. As of this week, there are still no U.S. ambassadors in Vietnam or Thailand, and there is currently no U.S. representative at ASEAN. Some of the blame for this delay can be laid at the feet of Ted Cruz because of his grandstanding blockade of State Department nominees, but there aren’t even nominees for Thailand and ASEAN for Cruz to block. Much of the ordinary work of diplomacy can continue without an ambassador, but the lack of one for a long period of time sends the host country a message about how valuable Washington thinks the relationship is. Blinken said in his speech that the United States will adopt “a strategy that more closely weaves together all our instruments of national power — diplomacy, military, intelligence — with those of our allies and our partners,” but as usual the government is overemphasizing the military dimension and neglecting the diplomatic.
Near the end of the speech, Blinken quoted a line from John F. Kennedy, “Our basic goal remains the same: a peaceful world, a community of free and independent states, free to choose their own future and their own system, so long as it does not threaten the freedom of others.” It is a laudable sentiment, but it was probably not lost on Blinken’s audience that just a few years after Kennedy said those words the United States was waging a senseless war in Southeast Asia and our government then assisted the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in the name of anticommunism. The nations of Southeast Asia are only too aware of how large the gap between American rhetoric and American actions can be, so the United States should not expect its high-flown rhetoric about a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to convince governments in the region to side with Washington so easily.