America's Inadequate ASEAN Approach

U.S. officials are visiting Southeast Asia more, but they aren't asking enough.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured Southeast Asia several weeks ago. In Brunei, he met with the ten defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their seven counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea. En route and afterwards, he stopped in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

With so much global media focused on Syria, Hagel tried to redirect some attention to the administration’s efforts to strengthen relationships with our Asian security partners. In Kuala Lumpur, he referenced the “more than 75 activities, exchanges, and visits with the Malaysian military... designed to boost its capability and help it become a more professional and flexible force.” In Jakarta, he announced the sale of eight new Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia—an example, he said, of “our commitment to help build Indonesia’s military capability.”

In Manila, he declared the U.S.-Philippines alliance “an anchor for peace and stability and prosperity” and lent the prestige of his office to ongoing negotiations for enhanced U.S.-Philippines defense cooperation. Like the new rotations of Marine and Air Force units through Australia and basing of littoral combat ships in Singapore, more regular rotations, joint exercises and prepositioning of equipment in the Philippines is positive for both sides.

Surely, however, the impact of these new initiatives is intended to be far greater than the sum of their parts. Because in and of themselves, they do not add enough military capability beyond what Washington already can call on in the Western Pacific to make much of a difference. The United States already conducts hundreds of port calls and dozens of bilateral and multilateral military exercises, and has done so for many years. It has been intensively engaged in helping reform and modernize the Philippines armed forces since 1999. The new initiatives, while welcome, are no different in kind from what’s been offered by previous administrations.

The weapons sales, deployment schedules and photo ops with Secretary Hagel serve primarily, then, as public-relations data points furthering the “pivot to Asia” narrative desired by the administration. They are all of a piece with the many other cabinet-level visits to the region over the last five years: Secretary Panetta’s visit to Cam Ranh Bay, Secretary Clinton’s visit to an American destroyer in Manila Bay, and initiatives from the low-cost Lower Mekong Initiative to the twelve-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

There are two conceivable rationales for the “pivot.”

One is that the administration is trying to balance China. This is the view usually taken by both geopolitically-minded friends of the administration and China-skeptical conservatives. The former wring their hands over Chinese reaction; the latter quietly cheer the administration’s attention to Asia, even as they despair the lack of material resources devoted to it.

The other rationale is a much more amorphous effort to build American soft power. This approach, favored in public statements from the administration, has no explicit target. Administration spokesmen insist that the last thing it is meant to do is counter China’s growing power and influence. And given the administration’s dogged outreach to China—despite all the negative behavioral feedback from Beijing—that certainly seems to be the case.

By the geopolitical measure, the policy is indeed succeeding in creating the impression of U.S.-Chinese great-power competition in Southeast Asia. The problem is that the geopolitical game could simply be a figment of Washington’s imagination.

Standard analysis would classify Southeast Asia states and ASEAN as either acting to balance a rising China or “bandwagoning” with it. In truth, many are doing neither.

ASEAN was created in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, to expand its members’ decision-making space, not constrain it through new alliances. This principled concern with autonomy—and the collective power to realize it—has only increased over time. Today, when hedging against China or anyone else, Southeast Asian states do so by taking all comers, including the Chinese. As an example of this, consider the countervailing photo ops from last month. While Secretary Hagel was travelling around the region, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi was hosting the ten ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Beijing. Following the Secretary’s tour, Premier Li Keqiang welcomed heads of Southeast Asian governments to Nanning.

For 40-plus years, ASEAN has simultaneously maintained peace among its members and expanded economic opportunity for them. With confidence borne of this success, ASEAN is trying to bring the United States into its own organizational orbit. It is playing its own game—not America’s, not China’s.