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A Confused Biden Team Risks Losing Southeast Asia

If the region continues to drift toward China, Washington has only itself to blame.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
Filipinos protest China in the South China Sea.
Filipinos protest against Beijing’s claims in the disputed South China Sea in Manila on Feb. 10, 2018. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

May 25 was hardly a bravura day for U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered for their first virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Having waited the best part of an hour, they learned a technical snafu would stop Blinken from participating in the call, which he had been due to join from his airplane as he flew off to the Middle East. A few weeks later, the same group of ASEAN ministers flew off to enjoy red carpet treatment and a productive, snafu-free, in-person meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The contrast between the two episodes was not hard to spot.

Southeast Asia is an important front line in a new era of geopolitical competition between China and the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden took office with plenty of goodwill across the region. Its leaders hoped Biden would be less erratic than former U.S. President Donald Trump and more willing to commit time to economic and diplomatic engagement. Yet six months into Biden’s tenure, and that goodwill is ebbing away. In its place, a sense of disappointment is taking hold amid talk about a lack of U.S. focus and confused objectives. If Biden cannot soon find that focus again, Washington risks damage to its credibility in the region—and further creeping Chinese influence.

The region should matter in Washington. It contains two U.S. allies: the Philippines and Thailand. There are other major partners too, including Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Yet economic ties in all these countries have shifted toward China as of late. Closer diplomatic ties are likely to follow in many cases, absent concerted U.S. action. Few regional policymakers relish a possible future under China’s sway and mostly want to maintain a balance between the two superpowers—which means they want the United States to stay closely engaged in regional affairs. But it is for precisely this reason that Southeast Asia is so attuned to signs of distraction or muddled thinking in Washington.

May 25 was hardly a bravura day for U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered for their first virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Having waited the best part of an hour, they learned a technical snafu would stop Blinken from participating in the call, which he had been due to join from his airplane as he flew off to the Middle East. A few weeks later, the same group of ASEAN ministers flew off to enjoy red carpet treatment and a productive, snafu-free, in-person meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The contrast between the two episodes was not hard to spot.

Southeast Asia is an important front line in a new era of geopolitical competition between China and the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden took office with plenty of goodwill across the region. Its leaders hoped Biden would be less erratic than former U.S. President Donald Trump and more willing to commit time to economic and diplomatic engagement. Yet six months into Biden’s tenure, and that goodwill is ebbing away. In its place, a sense of disappointment is taking hold amid talk about a lack of U.S. focus and confused objectives. If Biden cannot soon find that focus again, Washington risks damage to its credibility in the region—and further creeping Chinese influence.

The region should matter in Washington. It contains two U.S. allies: the Philippines and Thailand. There are other major partners too, including Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Yet economic ties in all these countries have shifted toward China as of late. Closer diplomatic ties are likely to follow in many cases, absent concerted U.S. action. Few regional policymakers relish a possible future under China’s sway and mostly want to maintain a balance between the two superpowers—which means they want the United States to stay closely engaged in regional affairs. But it is for precisely this reason that Southeast Asia is so attuned to signs of distraction or muddled thinking in Washington.

Blinken’s technical snafu hardly helped. Beyond the show of sheer incompetence, the fact that Blinken couldn’t participate in the ASEAN meeting as he was heading to Israel only acted as a reminder that U.S. commitments elsewhere distract attention from Asia. Despite more talk of a new focus on the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Defense Department also moved its only aircraft carrier in the western Pacific region last month back to support U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, sending an equally confusing signal. Individual countries have similar stories, including Indonesia, the region’s largest economy. Its foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, recently headed to the United States for a United Nations meeting on Palestine. While there, she failed to secure a meeting with Blinken, causing embarrassment in Jakarta.

The first and most obvious problem: Washington lacks an economic agenda for the region.

Biden’s problems are not all of his own making. Southeast Asia is littered with U.S. ambassadorial postings that have been unfilled since the Trump years. Pandemic restrictions also mean there are few big diplomatic gatherings U.S. leaders can actually attend in person to demonstrate their commitment to the region. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had planned to lead a large delegation in June to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue convened by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore (which I helped organize)—until the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.

Other problems, however, are self-inflicted. Biden has put little effort into calling Southeast Asian leaders. Those empty ambassadorial posts are not being filled in any hurry. There have been other opportunities to show leadership too—for instance, after the coup in Myanmar. But the U.S. response to the Myanmar crisis has been muted, with Washington playing a relatively minor diplomatic role. At a wider regional level, there has been nothing close to Washington’s demonstration of its commitment to Europe at the recent G-7, NATO, and U.S.-European Union summits.

U.S. strategists are not blind to these problems. In the absence of visits from more senior figures, the administration dispatched U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to visit Jakarta, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh in late May and early June—a low-profile trip that seemed to go well enough. Elsewhere, the confirmation of Daniel Kritenbrink as the State Department’s top official for East Asia should help improve policy coordination, not least given Kritenbrink’s background as a recent ambassador to Vietnam.

Yet these efforts look insubstantial compared to China’s more energetic regional courtship. On June 7, Wang hosted a “Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting” in Chongqing, China, where the agenda was focused on hot-button issues like vaccine diplomacy and post-pandemic economic recovery. Wang upgraded relations with ASEAN to “comprehensive strategic partnership”—a largely symbolic move but one that nonetheless accords the bloc the same status as the European Union. Beijing’s ties with individual ASEAN members are improving as well. A few days earlier in June, China and Indonesia had started a new “high-level dialogue cooperation mechanism” with a friendly meeting between Wang and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, an influential businessman-turned-politician who is often described as the country’s “minister of everything.”

Some of Southeast Asia’s sense of disappointment will likely melt away as soon as more senior U.S. leaders begin visiting Southeast Asia, which seems likely in the coming months. Yet merely turning up will not help solve the deeper problems that have stopped the United States from developing a more sensible regional strategy while simultaneously trying to push back against China in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

The first and most obvious problem: Washington lacks an economic agenda for the region. Beyond immediate recovery from the pandemic, growth and trade are Southeast Asia’s primary concerns. For decades, the United States was the region’s largest economic player and the architect of the trading system. Now, it risks ceding the second title to China, just as it has already lost the first.

At the heart of this problem lies the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal linking 11 nations bordering the Pacific Ocean that is soon likely to include other economies, such as Britain. So far, Biden’s team has shown few signs of finding a way through the tricky domestic politics that forced the United States’ withdrawal from the predecessor agreement—and which must be overcome for Washington to join the new trading bloc and take back its place at the head of the region’s economic table.

Biden is also struggling with a second problem: His lack of a message that resonates in Southeast Asia. “We’re in a battle between democracies and autocracies,” Biden said in May, a theme he reiterated at the European summits. Yet, pro-democracy talk is widely seen as unhelpful in a region dotted with autocratic and military leaders and where democracies have tended to trend in the wrong direction over recent years.

The third and most important problem is a growing tension between U.S. policies on China on the one hand and ASEAN on the other. Biden is gearing up to continue many of his predecessor’s tough China policies, from military competition to technology access. But talk of sustained U.S.-Chinese strategic competition makes much of Southeast Asia nervous. The region is not naive; its leaders do not think Beijing and Washington can return quickly to more harmonious times. But they hope for at least some kind of predictability and stability. Put simply: The harder Washington pushes against Beijing, the more difficult its relations with Southeast Asia are likely to become.

Finding the right balance between competing with China and reassuring Southeast Asia will not be easy.

This tension has proved especially acute in relation to the growing role of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), the informal quasi-alliance of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. Back in March, Biden’s team orchestrated one of its more impressive Asian diplomatic maneuvers, committing the Quad to deliver 1 billion vaccine doses to ASEAN members as part of an attempt to counter Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. This move was tactically astute and broadly welcomed, even if the actual vaccines have been slow to arrive. But generally, talk of a bigger role for the Quad raises alarms, since it would sideline ASEAN as the main forum for solving regional problems. Washington’s push for the Quad to take on a more prominent role in areas like infrastructure is only likely to exacerbate these concerns.

In part, the problems Biden faces stem from Southeast Asia’s own insecurities. The region wants high U.S. engagement. But when Washington actually shows signs of that engagement—as it is beginning to do with the Quad—the result brings on an attack of nerves. More generally, ASEAN nations’ ability to win Washington’s attention should be a function of their own willingness to act as diplomatic leaders in their own backyard. Instead, leaders in the region have more often kept their heads down on controversial topics for fear of offending Beijing, their own neighbors, or both.

For the United States, these tensions are a feature—not a bug—of regional diplomacy. Finding the right balance between competing with China and reassuring Southeast Asia will not be easy. The problem is the Biden administration does not appear to even be trying to strike that balance. Complaints in the region about a lack of focus ring true. And if Southeast Asia continues gradually to drift toward China as a result, Washington will only have itself to blame.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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