To Compete with China, Biden Needs a Smart Southeast Asia Strategy

By John McCarthy AO, Former Australian Diplomat

The election of Joe Biden promises a return to a more orthodox American foreign policy. But former ambassador John McCarthy argues Biden needs to break with the past in one key respect – a more vigorous and smarter engagement with Southeast Asia.

Three weeks after the United States election, there is plenty of evidence that President-elect Joe Biden and his Democrat administration-in-waiting grasp the strategic challenges they face in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

They have stressed rehabilitation of the multilateral system, the strengthening of traditional alliances, and a determination to stand up to both Russia and China.

Biden demonstrated his bona fides with calls to key allies in Europe on November 10 and to the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia the next day. In his talk with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, he reaffirmed that the US alliance commitment covered the disputed Senkaku islands – a crucial Japanese concern.

But the new administration rapidly needs to take its thinking on Asia one step further.

Since the Second World War, the primary focus of the US in Asia has been, with the exception of the Vietnam era, on Northeast Asia, where the interests of region’s biggest powers intersect.

If the US is to effectively manage the more adverse effects of China’s rise, it must now place equal weight on Southeast Asia.

America’s main regional allies, Japan, South Korea and Australia are not about to jump the alliance coop. For different reasons, their alliances with the US are central to their security policies.

The Southeast Asians think differently. They want strategic autonomy and flexibility in dealings with both the US and China. And it is here that the US must compete with China for influence.

Indonesian FM Retno Marsudi speaks at recent ASEAN-US Summit
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi underlines the importance of a strong friendship between the United States and ASEAN at the ASEAN-US Summit 2020, Jakarta, Indonesia - November 15, 2020. Image credit: @Menlu_RI, Twitter.

The new United States Administration needs to think about four things.

First, Woody Allen’s adage that “eighty percent of success is showing up” applies in spades. Trump and his senior team willfully or negligently did not show up in Southeast Asia. ASEAN meetings – and the others that surround them, like the East Asia Summit or APEC, are not ecstatic affairs but the dull, thudding engines of Asian diplomacy. All levels of the Administration need to attend these gatherings, not merely assistant secretaries of state and admirals from Honolulu.

Secondly, the importance of economic engagement. In mid year, Biden wrote that “economic security is national security”. It is only a minor extension of this perspective to suggest that international economic policy has a strong strategic component. Security relies on butter as well as guns. In terms of economic presence, the US is behind the game. For example, ASEAN has now overtaken the European Union and the US as China’s largest trading partner.

The recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) brings together all 10 ASEAN nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, representing both about 30 percent of the global population and 30 percent of global GDP. India’s last-minute failure to join means it will tend to be dominated by China.

RCEP Signing, Morrison and Birmingham
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Trade Simon Birmingham at the virtual signing ceremony for the RCEP, Canberra, Australia - November 15, 2020. Image credit: @pmc_gov_au, Twitter.

President Donald Trump wasted little time in excluding the US from the competing (or complementary) Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), covering some Asian countries (not China) and some western hemisphere countries. This decision could be changed by Biden, but he will have to deal with significant opposition in Congress, and from within his own party. This will take time to overcome.

There is also a case for the US to ease up on some of its bilateral trade disputes, including with Thailand and Vietnam.

Thirdly, policies between the various Southeast Asian countries will have to be carefully calibrated. Probably all—even Cambodia—favour a continued US strategic presence, but they have differing views on China. The soft power of the latter has diminished in recent years as much as that of the US under Trump. But Cambodia, Laos, and probably Myanmar, tilt towards China. Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore do not want to choose. The Philippines wants American proximity when it feels vulnerable. Vietnam attaches real importance to a strong US strategic presence.

Fourthly, a Democrat Administration will inevitably attach importance to governance and values. This approach could affect dealings with most of the Southeast Asian countries and with the government of Narendra Modi in India. It is a problem these countries did not have with Trump and do not have with China. American approaches will require a balance between meeting American security and economic requirements, and the demands of a values based foreign policy.

Trump largely neglected Southeast Asia with his quixotic approach to foreign relations. But as disruptive as he was to old patterns of diplomacy, he is not alone to blame for the neglect of this strategically pivotal neighbourhood.

Despite Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia, Southeast Asia has failed to attract anything like the level of interest or activity in American policy circles accorded Europe, the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Biden needs to change this, crafting economic and security policies that open the door to a deeper and smarter American engagement with Southeast Asia than seen since the Second World War, otherwise he risks ceding a decisive edge to China in the contest for regional influence.

John McCarthy AO is a Senior Advisor to Asialink and former Australian Ambassador to the United States, Indonesia, Japan, and High Commissioner to India.

Banner image: President-elect Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally in the key state of Georgia - October 27, 2020. Credit: Joe Biden, Flickr.