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Foreign Policy

Wooing Southeast Asia Won’t Work

Aug 18, 2021
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

Over the last two to three months, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has launched a diplomatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June; Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in late July; and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India and then attended the U.S.-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Mekong-U.S. Partnership Ministerial Meeting in early August. And a visit to Southeast Asia by Vice President Kamala Harris has been announced.

The administration has focused its efforts on Southeast Asia in this way for two important purposes, beyond strengthening bilateral relations in general. First, it wants to further entrench the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy in the region. Second, it wants to reignite the storm in the South China Sea.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States proposed its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy to compete with China. The 2019 Indo-Pacific strategy report issued by the U.S. Department of Defense wishfully included all countries in the region, regardless of their attitudes. Among the countries of Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand can be called allies. Singapore is a country whose partnership with the U.S. is not overly strong. And most other countries are in the group of those “whose partnership should be developed.”

In fact, Southeast Asian countries have been lukewarm toward the strategic concept — an invention that the Biden administration inherited from the Trump. The United States has long tried to establish more rotating bases in Southeast Asia and to strengthen its forward presence in the region.

The focus of Austin’s visit was undoubtedly to repair relations with the Philippines. Although the Philippines is a nominal U.S. ally, the norm in Philippine-U.S. relations during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte has been more friction than cooperation. Having said that, the Philippines is extremely important to the United States. The 1998 Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement is now in jeopardy. If it is terminated, the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two sides will not be in place, and the Philippine-U.S. military alliance will become null and void.

Austin did not make the trip in vain this time, as Duterte withdrew the decision to terminate the agreement for visiting forces. Austin expressed “gratitude” to the Philippines at a news conference, saying he very much appreciated its decision. Thanks to this agreement, the U.S. Department of Defense can conduct more than 300 bilateral engagements a year with the armed forces of the Philippines. Some observers believe there may be variables.

Another U.S. objective is to reignite the storm in the South China Sea. Developments in the past decade have had much to do with the United States. In July 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise statement at the ASEAN Regional Forum that brought the differences between China and the United States over the South China Sea into the open and gradually created a regional flashpoint.

Since then, the U.S. has been meddling in the South China Sea and sowing discord. With the encouragement and support of the U.S., the Aquino government in the Philippines unilaterally submitted the dispute with China to the Arbitration Tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. has not only raised the South China Sea issue at regional gatherings but has also sought to expand the issue to the world by raising it at various international events, prompting the G7 and others to issue statements. In recent years, China and others in the region have actively and steadily promoted negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and some progress has been made, with stability largely maintained.

But the U.S. is unhappy with these developments and continues to abuse the so-called freedom of navigation and overflight principle by frequently dispatching ships and aircraft to the waters and encouraging its European allies to stir up trouble by holding military exercises there.

At the Aug. 5 East Asia Summit Ministerial Meeting, Blinken spoke out again on the fifth anniversary of the arbitration verdict when he reiterated that the U.S. rejects China’s claims in the South China Sea. The U.S. is clearly trying to stir up trouble again. Vice President Harris’s upcoming visit to Southeast Asia will be a push in both directions. However, the U.S. plot to rally Southeast Asian countries against China will not find easy success for two main reasons:

First, the main body of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia — while ASEAN countries collectively adhere to the principle of ASEAN centrality. Based on this principle, ASEAN has initiated and led a series of mechanisms such as the 10+1 (ASEAN plus China), 10+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan, and South Korea), East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum, successfully assuming a leadership role in regional affairs and acting as a strategic middleman for neighboring powers.

The ASEAN centrality principle has been gradually formed and has proved effective for decades during the development of ASEAN. It is a useful framework for maintaining the overall stability of the region, which no one wants to give up. But the centrality principle is completely out of step with the Quad. ASEAN will not be a helper to any strategic grouping, and the U.S. will never be able to integrate ASEAN into its Indo-Pacific strategy.

Second, in the 30 years since China and ASEAN established dialogues, the bilateral relationship has been on the rise, bearing fruitful results in three major areas — political security, business and cultural exchanges. Interdependence is deepening, and China became the first country to explicitly support ASEAN centrality in East Asia cooperation. The two sides jointly launched efforts to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative, which is coordinated with ASEAN’s development plans. Bilateral trade has increased by a factor of more than 80 in the past 30 years, and ASEAN has become China’s largest trading partner. China’s foreign trade with ASEAN totaled 3.12 trillion yuan ($481 billion) in the first seven months of this year, up 24.6 percent year-on-year. With the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, integration between China and ASEAN in trade, investment and technology will enter a new era, and the economic foundation of the bilateral relationship will become stronger. The future of China-ASEAN relations is bright, and it cannot be shaken by the “China threat” theory of the United States.

Singapore has long acted as the mouthpiece of ASEAN. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly said in recent years that Southeast Asia will not choose sides between China and the United States. On Aug. 3 at the Aspen Institute’s security forum, he reiterated a strong call for China and the U.S. to look at each other rationally, resume contacts and exchanges and avoid a conflict that would be a disaster for both sides and beyond. Why doesn’t the U.S. seriously consider ASEAN’s call?

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