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Foreign Policy

Mission Impossible: Biden’s Southeast Asia Strategy Against China

Feb 24, 2021

“America is back,” declared President Joseph Biden, in his first major foreign policy speech since his inauguration last month. Standing before the country’s diplomatic corps at the U.S. State Department, he confidently declared: “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” 

Just weeks into office, the Biden administration has signaled an overhaul in its foreign policy, placing greater focus on multilateralism, alliance-building, free trade, and human rights. In regions such as the Middle East, the new U.S. leadership is swiftly discarding key tenets of the Trump administration’s policies, from a likely return to the Iranian nuclear deal in the near future to the immediate halt in American assistance to Saudi-led war in Yemen. 

But in places such as Southeast Asia, a new theatre of superpower competition, the Biden administration will face an uphill struggle in assembling a reliable alliance, and reasserting American leadership. The new U.S. leadership confronts not only an increasingly dominant China, which has provided large-scale economic assistance with no ideological strings attached, but also wavering allies and skeptical strategic partners, who are unsure about the future of American foreign policy. 

From a once hegemonic power, the U.S. has increasingly become more of a primus inter pares among competing regional powers. America may be back, but Southeast Asia has moved on, with the broader international system changing in ways that won’t easily accommodate U.S.’ claims to leadership. 

Trumpism 2.0 

The running cliché among strategic analysts is that the new American leadership is simply a ‘third Obama term’. After all, practically all of former Vice President Joe Biden’s top appointees served in senior positions under the Obama administration. 

Moreover, both Biden as well as his “alter-ego”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken have expressly rejected the Trump administration’s unilateralist and aggressive foreign policy posturing. Fresh into his confirmation last month, the U.S.’ new diplomatic chief declared, “It’s a new day for America. It’s a new day for the world.” 

And yet, even a cursory look at the policy positions of the new scions of American national security shows greater continuity than change over the question of China. Blinken himself has admitted that he “believe[s] that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China” while signaling a significant element of continuity by stating “the basic principle [of Trump’s China policy] was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.” 

Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in turn, has categorically tagged China as “the most significant threat going forward” while National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the new darling of the Democratic establishment, has called for not only the continuation, but even intensification of Trump era naval deployments to China’s adjacent waters, especially the hotly contested South China Sea. 

In fact, Blinken echoed the position of his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, by arguing, “the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.” 

The hawkish turn in Democratic politics is perhaps most palpable in the statements of erstwhile technocrat-academics such as Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen, who warned “we’re prepared to use the full array of tools”, including financial sanctions, amid a brewing technological war against China. 

In Southeast Asia, however, there is little appetite to host a “New Cold War” between the 21st century superpowers. What regional states are more interested in are tangible and literally constructive initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a full array of mega-trade and investment deals across Southeast Asia. 

While the Biden administration has rejected its predecessor’s trade protectionism, it has yet to come forth on any significant economic project in Asia, which can directly compete with those of China. And even if Biden were to rejoin the Trump-rejected Transpacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement or negotiate an expanded version of it, it’s unclear whether he can muster sufficient legislative support, including among progressive elements of the Democratic party. 

A Skeptical Audience 

If there is anything that the brazen overthrow of the democratically-elected government in Myanmar shows is that regional players are less concerned about the U.S. than ever. The Myanmar junta pressed ahead with assuming full powers just days into Biden’s presidency, knowing full well that this could trigger massive sanctions by the U.S. and its allies. 

Yet, it’s not only the generals in Myanmar but also key allies such as the Philippines that are openly defying the U.S.. Since coming to power in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has overseen a revolution in his country’s traditionally Washington-aligned foreign policy in favor of warmer ties with Moscow and Beijing. 

And following years of threatening to nix the Philippines’ century-old alliance with America, Duterte has suspended the all-crucial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitated large-scale entry of American troops into Philippine soil for the past three decades. In fact, the Biden administration has until May this year to finalize the status of the defense agreement, which is crucial to American projection of power in the South China Sea and broader region. 

But it’s unlikely that Duterte will fully restore the agreement unless the new American leadership provides clear guarantees against expanded sanctions over his human rights record. With Democrats in control of the Congress, it’s more likely that there will be renewed calls for more punitive measures against top Filipino officials – a development that would only exacerbate existing tensions between the two allies and push Duterte further into China’s embrace. 

Myanmar and the Philippines, two countries with increasing dependence on China, may represent only the most extreme strategic headaches for the Biden administration. But even relatively ‘neutral’ Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, the region’s largest nations, as well as Singapore and Malaysia, the region’s two most developed nations, will also have second thoughts about American wherewithal and commitment. 

To begin, there are questions as to whether Biden will seek re-election in 2024. Not to mention, the enduring influence of Trumpian isolationism, which will shape American politics for years if not decades to come. Above all, it’s far from clear whether the U.S. can overcome its domestic crises amid political polarization. 

As a result, it’s highly unlikely that major Southeast Asian powers will be willing to join an American-led alliance against China, which has offered massive economic benefits to the region. The upshot of rising skepticism among both allies and strategic partners as well as Beijing’s deepening influence means that the Biden administration can, at best, become a major ‘shaping power’ rather than the undisputed hegemon in Southeast Asia. Welcome to the 21st century geopolitics. 

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