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Foreign Policy

Botched Diplomacy: Biden Struggles to Enlist ASEAN against China

Jun 22, 2021

“[The region is a] beautiful constellation of nations, each a bright star, satellites to none”, exclaimed former President Donald Trump during his maiden visit to Asia for the 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. His much-anticipated speech at Ariyana Da Nang Exhibition Center, in Vietnam, was meant to signal both his commitment to expanded strategic ties with the region as well as mutual-respect vis-a-vis smaller powers, especially in Southeast Asia. 

Just days later, the American president visited the Philippines for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. A master of flattery and natural celebrity, Trump wooed his Southeast Asian counterparts, including the Beijing-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Eager to please his host, a fellow populist, Trump characteristically adopted superlative language to describe his “great relationship” with the Southeast Asian leader. 

It didn’t take long, however, before the whole mirage of Trumpian bonhomie and strategic dedication was exposed. The former US president was a no-show in succeeding annual ASEAN summits, instead sending increasingly junior replacements to the regional summits. Meanwhile, rival powers such as China and Russia ensured high-level representation at the meetings, while the European Union and post-Brexit United Kingdom stepped up their ASEAN courtship. 

No wonder then that the victory of Joe Biden, a former vice-president and longtime foreign policy hand at the Senate, was greeted with good will and optimism across Southeast Asian. Earlier this year, the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute released its latest annual survey of regional policy elites and opinion-makers, which showed the “a surprising turn-around with a 18.0% jump in trust ratings” for the US that “reversed the trends in negative ratings from 49.7% in 2020 to 31.3% in 2021.” 

With veteran diplomats and policy wonks back in Washington, ASEAN nations expected a fresh start in bilateral relations with the U.S. So far though, the Biden administration has largely ignored Southeast Asian nations, instead doubling down on strategic relations with Western allies and Indo-Pacific powers of India, Japan, and South Korea. The perceived strategic snobbery by the Americans has thus reinforced deep geopolitical fault lines between ASEAN and the U.S. 

A History of Neglect 

Southeast Asia bears the marks of deep historical traumas. Throughout the Cold War, the region was the ultimate theatre of superpower rivalries, which culminated in the brutal conflicts in Indochina and countless insurgencies across archipelagic regional states. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in early-1990s, ASEAN consciously positioned itself as the main driver of regional integration, establishing multiple platforms for institutionalized dialogue among major powers. 

Soon, the regional body, a motley collection of small and medium-sized nations, went so far as claiming “ASEAN centrality” in shaping 21st century security architecture in Asia. In reality though, ASEAN’s geopolitical relevance could not be gained merely by the strength of its internal coherence, combined resources, and strategic vision, as commendable as those elements have been.

More crucially, the regional body’s success largely hinged on the depth of recognition and respect from other major powers, especially the US. And yet, ASEAN consistently struggled to gain sufficient commitment from multiple post-Cold War American administrations. 

The Bill Clinton administration effectively abandoned Southeast Asian nations during the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis. Even worse, Washington alienated its closest ASEAN allies such as Thailand by siding with Wall Street and supporting aggressive and heavily-destabilizing interventions by the International Monetary Fund across distressed regional economies. 

The George W. Bush administration was no better, largely ignoring ASEAN in favor of prosecuting endless wars in the Middle East. To make matters worse, the Republican administration pressured regional states to join its misguided ‘Global War on Terror’, eventually estranging leaders from the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. 

As “America’s first Pacific president”, President Barack Obama sought to end this pattern of strategic neglect towards a vital region. Right off the bat, the Democratic administration signaled a major shift in its foreign policy orientation, whereby disengagement from old theaters of conflict such as the Middle East will go hand in hand with a comprehensive American “pivot to Asia”. 

To this end, Obama made sure that Asian countries, including Indonesia, were among his first major foreign visits. Moreover, he dramatically upgraded strategic engagement with ASEAN by appointing a permanent representative to the regional body, signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, promoting Indonesia as a global partner and G20 power, launching the Lower Mekong Initiative for regional development in Indochina, and inviting multiple regional states to join the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). 

Crucially, the Obama administration also oversaw a renaissance in strategic relations with former regional adversaries, especially Vietnam, while fortifying defense ties with traditional allies, especially the Philippines. Towards the end of his term, the US president also held an unprecedented intimate summit with Southeast Asian counterparts at Sunnylands, California. 

Back to the Future 

Obama’s patient, nuanced, and focused ASEAN diplomacy was part of his broader “pivot to Asia” strategy, which aimed at simultaneously strengthening the U.S.’ strategic footprint in the region as well as checking China’s resurgence as a major global power. 

His populist successor, however, adopted a radically different approach. Trump not only abandoned sophisticated diplomacy vis-à-vis China, launching a devastating “New Cold War” through a barrage of unilateral sanctions; he also effectively ignored ASEAN in favor of expanded military cooperation with likeminded Indo-Pacific powers under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad initiative. 

To make matters worse, Trump relied on a coterie of ideologues and amateurs to conduct his shambolic foreign policy. The effect to ASEAN, which is extremely sensitive to protocols and pre-established patterns of diplomatic behavior, was devastating. 

Not only did Trump snub multiple ASEAN summits; his representatives ended up lecturing, berating, or even threatening regional states on multiple occasions. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, for instance, went so far as threatening Southeast Asian nations against finalizing a conciliatory Code of Conduct (COC) with China in the South China Sea. During a visit to Singapore, the neoconservative ideologue openly warned, “the U.S. would oppose any agreements between China and other claimants that limit free passage to international shipping and that American naval vessels would continue to sail through these waters.” 

Not long after, Trump’s assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, David Stilwell, openly lectured ASEAN countries to take a tough stance against China. “This is your turf, this is your place. Vietnam has done a good job of pushing back. I would think that regarding ASEAN centrality ... [the grouping] would join Vietnam to resist actions that are destabilizing and effecting security,” the former US diplomat said, publicly berating regional states for not aligning with the U.S. against Chinese influence. 

Regardless of the actual merits of such statements, ASEAN nations deeply resent being lectured or threatened by any major power. The missteps of the Trump administration created a missed opportunity to productively communicate American frustrations to its Southeast Asian partners. 

Disappointment and Differences 

Instead of recognizing “ASEAN centrality”, right now Washington seems more interested in building an “Asian NATO” against China. It’s quite telling that only weeks into power, the Biden administration held multiple high-level meetings with counterparts from India, Japan, Australia and Europe.

Just months into office, Biden went even so far as overseeing the first-ever Quad summit, while conducting in-person bilateral summits with leaders of Japan and South Korea. In the meantime, he dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to major Asian, European and Middle Eastern capitals in recent months.

In stark contrast, Biden largely snubbed his Southeast Asian counterparts, while none of his key secretaries have visited any major Southeast Asian capital. Shockingly, the Biden administration omitted Southeast Asian treaty allies of Thailand and the Philippines in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. When Blinken hastily tried to organize a virtual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts last month, en route to the Middle East from Europe, a technical glitch left Southeast Asian diplomats waiting 45 minutes before empty screens.

As a result, there is a lingering sense of neglect among ASEAN nations. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has tried to make it up to its regional partners by dispatching Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to the region, but the trip skipped key partners in the Philippines and Vietnam. In fairness, Biden recently called his counterpart in the Philippines and has signaled his commitment to personally attend the ASEAN Summit later this year. 

Yet, reviving bilateral ties with ASEAN will require a more concerted, comprehensive engagement with the region. Presenting himself as a global defender of democracy and human rights, Biden may also struggle to build rapport with mostly authoritarian regimes in the region. But Biden’s biggest challenge, perhaps, is convincing Southeast Asian states to join his “Asian NATO” against China.

After all, ASEAN has made it clear that it refuses to choose between superpowers, sees China as an indispensable partner, and is deeply irked by Washington’s investment in Quad and other ‘big power’ groupings, which undermine ‘ASEAN centrality’. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will overcome its initial diplomatic faux pas and, more crucially, manage to build a robust partnership with Southeast Asian countries amid a New Cold War with China. 

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