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Foreign Policy

Why Doesn’t Southeast Asia Choose the U.S.?

Apr 23, 2024
  • Liu Chang

    Assistant Research Fellow, Department for American Studies, CIIS

The Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published its “State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey” on April 2. The most impressive point in the report is that when asked about the choice of choosing sides between China and the United States, respondents choosing China rose to 50.5 percent from the 38.9 percent last year. Those choosing the U.S. dropped to 49.5 percent from 61.1 percent, marking the first time China has overtaken America in the past five years.

In the early days of the Joe Biden presidency, those who tended to side with the U.S. was once around two-thirds; now it’s less than half. There are three main reasons for this.

First, the U.S. has made only limited adjustments to its Southeast Asia policies. In the Biden administration’s globally deployed Indo-Pacific Strategy, Southeast Asia, which sits at the geographical center of the Indo-Pacific region, gets a backseat in strategic significance. Under the Donald Trump administration’s United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, which it declassified ahead of schedule, Southeast Asia and Pacific island nations were assigned the last seats. Judging from the documents the Biden administration has released surrounding its Indo-Pacific Strategy and the strategic moves it has made so far, Southeast Asia’s strategic position has not changed conspicuously in the minds of U.S. decision-makers.

On the surface, the Biden administration has shown more concern about Southeast Asia than its predecessor. Aside from verbal support, however, the practical moves the U.S. has made hardly match the broader strategic ambitions it has been propagating in public. As many experts predicted, after reaching a number of agreements on each of its four pillars, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework has entered protracted negotiations, far from being able to provide a  boost for either America’s image or Biden’s bid for re-election.

The two Indo-Pacific Strategy lists of outcomes the U.S. State Department issued even included the Just Energy Transition Partnerships reached with Indonesia and Vietnam under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment framework.

(By the way, since the U.S. has been dragging its feet on delivering the appropriations it promised Indonesia, the latter had to sent a prime minister-level official to the U.S. to seek a solution.)

Second, Southeast Asian nations have seen greater internal resilience. The mindset of those nations has been changing quietly. The fear and anxiety that emerged when the Trump administration launched a trade war are giving way to greater self-confidence, and countries are seriously discussing ways to enhance ASEAN resilience and unity against the background of intensified geopolitical rivalry.

One seldom hears Southeast Asian scholars complaining about collateral damage their countries suffer as a result of major power competition: Their publications have already taken the U.S. weakening of ASEAN’s centrality by building overlapping mini multilateral mechanisms as a self-evident premise. Andrew Mines, a Southeast Asia expert at United States Institute of Peace, was blunt in saying that if U.S. efforts to build support in Southeast Asia fail, then it should invest more in promoting a mini multilateral mechanism or something else along multilateral lines.

To cope with the exclusive strategic vision the United States has designed, Southeast Asian nations have proposed the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific and upgraded it into one of ASEAN’s priorities. While building on the Indo-Pacific concept, the outlook reconstructs the strategic core of the term Indo-Pacific, confining it to ASEAN values and principles and making it possible to serve ASEAN’s strategic autonomy. This is a typical example of ASEAN expanding an inclusive order to take advantage of the normative powers it has accumulated over the years. It represents the trend of building an “ASEAN world,” and indicates that ASEAN has found a viable path for consolidating strategic autonomy.

Third is the macro trend that pushes development in Southeast Asia’s post-pandemic recovery. COVID-19’s influence on Southeast Asia persists. The current speed of recovery has yet to meet the anticipation of the countries and people in the region. Under such circumstances, politics and social structures in Southeast Asian countries are tilting back toward stability and tradition, and there have been stronger demands for stable and predictable industrial and supply chains.

The U.S.-driven decoupling notion has met with stronger resistance, and “friend-shoring” has increasingly shown weakness. The China-Laos railway has seen booming business in both passenger and freight transport since its launch. The new government in Thailand is actively consulting with Laos about the railway’s extension to that country.

The report also found that countries that are more responsive to Belt and Road Initiative proposals hold more positive attitudes toward China. Here the key is that China and Southeast Asian nations are highly aligned when it comes to developmental paths; therefore, even if there are setbacks in the process, their cooperation can always be dynamic, because cooperation suits the needs of regional development and the parties have no major divergences over the goals of cooperation.

The United States has long claimed that it would compete with China in Southeast Asia, but in the past few years the U.S. approach to competition has failed to accurately match regional countries’ actual needs. The measures it has proposed in such fields as economy and trade, to which Southeast Asian countries have attached great importance, have failed to yield sustainable outcomes, thanks to domestic politics.

China has repeatedly stated that major power competition cannot solve the problems is faces with the U.S. and the world — let alone the so-called competition America engages in across Southeast Asia, which more like tilting at windmills. 

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