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Foreign Policy

U.S. Policy in Southeast Asia Disappoints

Jul 16, 2021
  • Liu Chang

    Assistant Research Fellow, Department for American Studies, CIIS

With Joe Biden’s inauguration, many experts in Southeast Asian countries had expected his policy would be an upgraded edition of Barack Obama’s. Nearly 10 months into his presidency, however, they’ve found an upgraded Trump edition instead. Southeast Asian nations have made various calculations in anticipation of U.S. policy in the region under Biden. It might have been beyond their imagination that Washington would simply brush the region aside. 

The Biden-Harris team had not met or talked with any Southeast Asian leader after more than five months in office. This embarrassing record would make regional countries feel hurt, even taking the pandemic into consideration. By comparison, while Trump didn’t meet or talk with any Southeast Asian leader in his first 100 days, he sent his vice president, Mike Pence, to visit the region soon after assuming office.

U.S. indifference to exchanges with Southeast Asia was also reflected in the abortive video conference of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Southeast Asian foreign ministers. Blinken was to attend the meeting after a red-eye flight from Ireland to Israel. Yet he failed to present himself because of “technical issues,” leaving the 10 ASEAN foreign ministers waiting in vain before their screens.

As if to appease the Southeast Asian nations, Biden sent Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Ruth Sherman to visit Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. She delivered plenty of empty talk about values, hawking the U.S.   Indo-Pacific Strategy, sowing discord between the countries and China and perfectly embodying Biden’s diplomatic style of empty promises.

Southeast Asian countries were fully aware that Sherman had come empty-handed, bringing no new project, no specific measure, no proposal for cooperation. No wonder that Alexander Feldman, president and CEO of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, said he agreed with local people that the U.S. had not shown enough love for Southeast Asia. Even U.S. citizens living in the region seemed to have been forgotten. Overseas Americans in Thailand wrote to Sherman, asking the U.S. to provide them with vaccines as soon as possible. 

In fact, the U.S. continues to overtly and covertly threaten Southeast Asian nations as it pressures them to take sides, forcing acceptance of the American version of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and joining the U.S.-built anti-China circle. Southeast Asian countries not only find it difficult to accept such arrogant U.S. diplomacy but also have perceived huge risks in following the U.S.   Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once said that few countries are willing to join an exclusive alliance, especially one that doesn’t include China.

Zealously pursuing confrontation with China, the U.S. has lost the patience and willingness to manage its relations with Southeast Asia. The Biden administration has focused primarily on Europe and the Middle East, where “achievements” may be made more easily, and virtually abandoning Southeast Asia, where intensive, meticulous endeavors are needed.

Southeast Asian nations aren’t in the limelight in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategic layout, even when they are not compared with Europe and the Middle East. The overwhelming U.S. priority in the Asia-Pacific region is to gradually consolidate the QUAD security mechanism, step by step ablate ASEAN’s existing multilateral cooperation mechanisms and to dominate the direction and pace of adjustments in the regional order. Biden couldn’t wait to convene an online QUAD summit after assuming office, and has decided to hold an offline summit before the end of this year.

To the U.S., the QUAD is the most effective handle for implementing its Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the principles of coordination, checks and balances and non-interference in domestic affairs, which ASEAN holds dear, are a far cry from what Washington wants. Though the U.S. has repeatedly stated that ASEAN lies at the core of the Indo-Pacific region, and that it respects ASEAN’s central role, in the eyes of the Southeast Asian nations, U.S. actions show it is going around ASEAN to frame its central role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In contrast, China’s attitude toward Southeast Asian nations is a lot more sincere. China not only promised to resolutely support ASEAN’s central role but has accelerated the provision of badly needed vaccines and medical materials, defying such groundless accusations as “vaccine diplomacy.”

As close neighbors, China and Southeast Asian countries share broad common interests and prospects for cooperation in economy and trade, pandemic containment, anti-terrorism and security, as well as sub-regional cooperation. China and ASEAN are planning new growth points for cooperation surrounding the building of public health and a digital and green Silk Road, aiming at a more solid China-ASEAN community with a shared future.

The China-ASEAN relationship has always been open and inclusive, has never excluded and will never exclude third parties. Any country that wants to engage in fair and benign competition with China in Southeast Asia should bear in mind Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s words that competition should “at once upgrade oneself   and illuminate the other side.”

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