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Southeast Asia Is Getting Squeezed by America’s Embrace

Forcing states to choose between Washington and Beijing is a strategic mistake.

By , a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar on the Indonesian island of Bali.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar on the Indonesian island of Bali.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar on the Indonesian island of Bali on Nov. 13, 2022.

 Seeking to install the United States as the partner of choice has been a regular feature of Washington’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific across multiple administrations. Commonly used in both business and government enterprise but not officially defined, “partner of choice” describes a long-term economic or security relationship with the implication of exclusivity, and, in the case of the U.S. government, it often involves an active effort to diminish the competition for said partnership, pushing out other states courting the partner or actively demanding hostility toward them from the partner. But Washington’s fixation on this implicitly exclusive style of partnership is counterproductive and representative of a flawed approach to the region. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia.

Washington has far more partners than formal treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, and even some of its allies have complex defense relationships that involve Washington’s two largest geopolitical competitors, Russia and China, to varying degrees. In Southeast Asia, Singapore, arguably Washington’s closest partner in the area, is not a formal ally of the United States, while two of its treaty allies, Thailand and the Philippines, have spent the last several years holding Washington at arm’s length while they flirted with Beijing. While U.S. President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a welcome signal of interest, it is woefully thin on details for an administration approaching its midpoint. Washington is largely imagining status as the partner of choice, and if it expects to remain a compelling option for any kind of partnership, it must lead in the areas that matter most to its partners rather than relying primarily on its security relationships.

Many in Washington assume that Indo-Pacific states and multilateral institutions share their view of China as a hostile state, or that they see the United States as a benign power in their region. And it’s certainly true that China’s popularity, per polling from organizations such as the Pew Research Center, has dipped in the region. Beijing’s proximity can make it a sharp concern.

 Seeking to install the United States as the partner of choice has been a regular feature of Washington’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific across multiple administrations. Commonly used in both business and government enterprise but not officially defined, “partner of choice” describes a long-term economic or security relationship with the implication of exclusivity, and, in the case of the U.S. government, it often involves an active effort to diminish the competition for said partnership, pushing out other states courting the partner or actively demanding hostility toward them from the partner. But Washington’s fixation on this implicitly exclusive style of partnership is counterproductive and representative of a flawed approach to the region. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia.

Washington has far more partners than formal treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, and even some of its allies have complex defense relationships that involve Washington’s two largest geopolitical competitors, Russia and China, to varying degrees. In Southeast Asia, Singapore, arguably Washington’s closest partner in the area, is not a formal ally of the United States, while two of its treaty allies, Thailand and the Philippines, have spent the last several years holding Washington at arm’s length while they flirted with Beijing. While U.S. President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a welcome signal of interest, it is woefully thin on details for an administration approaching its midpoint. Washington is largely imagining status as the partner of choice, and if it expects to remain a compelling option for any kind of partnership, it must lead in the areas that matter most to its partners rather than relying primarily on its security relationships.

Many in Washington assume that Indo-Pacific states and multilateral institutions share their view of China as a hostile state, or that they see the United States as a benign power in their region. And it’s certainly true that China’s popularity, per polling from organizations such as the Pew Research Center, has dipped in the region. Beijing’s proximity can make it a sharp concern.

But it’s a mistake to assume that Southeast Asia sees the United States as inherently virtuous and China as fundamentally bad. That’s a dangerous assumption in a region where at least three countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—are still grappling (with some U.S. support, it must be noted) with unexploded ordnance left over from horrifically destructive wars, and still others, such as Indonesia, can point to U.S. intelligence agencies destabilizing their governments within living memory. Most states in Southeast Asia view both the United States and China with some degree of trepidation, but their experiences with Beijing are not as sharp as Washington may imply, nor are their interactions with Washington so amiable.

Southeast Asia is a region defined by its pragmatism. This is reflected in its marquee institution, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which works by consensus and progresses at the speed of its the slowest and most reluctant members to resolve issues and prevent conflict. And, with at least one notable exception, it has been successful in these aims. ASEAN’s member states saw the devastating results of great-power competition in their collective backyard during the Cold War, and they are unlikely to sign up for another.

The narrative surrounding the idea that Southeast Asian partners might be forced to choose between the United States and China continues to swirl, but in reality, they will choose their own side. To invoke a cliched observation from former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “When elephants fight, the grass suffers, but when they make love, the grass suffers also.” Southeast Asia, and most of the wider Indo-Pacific, is interested in maximizing cooperation with both elephants—the United States and China—without being so close to one that they draw the ire of the other.

But at the same time, no country wants to be so dependent on either that in the unlikely event of a U.S.-China détente they find themselves vulnerable to coercion by one half of the once-imagined G-2. Playing the elephants off against each other is as important as keeping them from fighting. Nobody wants to be squashed under the passionate embrace of Beijing and Washington, however implausible the union of those two pachyderms might seem.

The real competitive arena is economics, not defense and security. Defense relationships are important, and the United States has deep and significant defense relationships that deserve continued attention. But even in that space the United States will remain a partner of choice, and it may not like the other partners. Continually preaching to Southeast Asia about Beijing’s predatory economics is paternalistic and a poor estimate of the region’s own ability to determine its interests. Partners are not blind to China’s financial practices. They are also well aware of the U.S. response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and, more recently, the U.S. role in the 2008 global financial crisis. No country in Southeast Asia is attracted by the prospect of complete exclusivity with either the United States or China in any sector. Trying to change that will accomplish little more than frustrating Washington’s partners.

Washington’s greatest hope in advancing its policy objectives in Southeast Asia, and in the wider Indo-Pacific, lies in its ability to engage as a reliable economic partner and stable security partner. Expecting or coaxing Southeast Asian states to join explicitly anti-China initiatives, resisting free trade agreements, or remaining outside accelerating economic arrangements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership will not produce desired policy outcomes for Washington.

Blake Herzinger is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

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