The Biden administration’s newly released Indo-Pacific strategy, which builds on the Trump administration’s work on the concept, directs the United States to strengthen its commitment to the Indo-Pacific and “firmly anchor” itself across the region. As Washington looks to do so in Southeast Asia, it should pay particular attention to sustaining its engagement, especially given its historical involvement in the region.
As I argue in my new book, Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy, applying a “balance of commitment” approach to understanding U.S. policy towards Southeast Asia suggests that U.S. policymakers have found it challenging to calibrate between shifts in power, threats, and resources to increase American commitment in a sustained, calibrated way that reflects Southeast Asia’s growing importance over the past half-century. For instance, following the 9/11 attacks, terrorism consumed the George W. Bush administration’s Southeast Asia approach. Subsequently, Barack Obama’s desire to broaden Washington’s focus led U.S. policy to fall short on resourcing in some areas.
The weight of the U.S. commitment challenge now rests with the Biden administration as it embarks on implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy in Southeast Asia. While the combination of a tougher domestic consensus on China, deepening polarization, an ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and a string of other foreign policy issues, including Russia’s military maneuvers in Ukraine, is no doubt a contested context, there are steps that the Biden team can take to better manage this challenge across the economic, diplomatic, and security realms.
First, the Biden administration must find sustainable ways to enter into economic commitments with key Southeast Asian states. Historically, this has proven difficult with respect to trade pacts across multiple administrations, be it Bush’s bilateral approach that faltered with countries like Malaysia and Thailand, or the multilateral approach with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with four Southeast Asian countries—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—that failed to gain approval domestically.
The Biden administration’s recently-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) offers a starting point for cooperation, particularly in realms like the digital economy where agreements are proliferating and there is an opportunity for a broader regional pact. Even if such sectoral agreements may not require congressional approval under the lapsed trade promotion authority, legislative involvement will be key to reassure partners that the rules and principles being negotiated are binding and durable.
Second, the Biden team should look at creative ways to find a more dispersed approach with respect to U.S. security personnel and equipment in Southeast Asia that extends beyond current locations, as it has begun to do with its Global Posture Review released last November. Sustainable progress in this area has proven challenging to date in spite of the acknowledgement by both Democratic and Republican administrations following the Cold War that a diversified presence will help insulate Washington from political changes in Thailand or the Philippines, as we saw with the closure of U.S. bases in Subic and Clark.
To be sure, basing-like arrangements per se may not gain much traction in parts of Southeast Asia. Yet looser agreements or less ambitious starting points, such as the prepositioning of certain U.S. equipment ahead of natural disasters, port visits for U.S. vessels, or even stopover points for multilateral, U.S.-led exercises covering areas like military medicine, would at least begin normalizing the notion of a more distributed U.S. security presence in Southeast Asia across a larger group of countries. To manage sensitivities, this could even leverage existing work by Southeast Asian countries and U.S. allies and partners in certain spaces within the region, be it the Mekong subregion or the Sulu Sea.
Third, the Biden team should elevate and expand institutionalized diplomatic dialogues with Southeast Asian countries to ensure that their strategic importance in U.S. policymaking endures despite ebbs, flows, and imbalances across administrations. While the administration’s flood of cabinet-level officials to Southeast Asia during its first year of office is no doubt impressive, institutionalizing engagements would at the very least help limit the fallout on relationships if countries see reduced interest under future administrations. This is certainly possible given the reality that these ties often do not receive the same prioritization of key countries in other subregions, be it South Korea or India.
A major priority in this regard is the U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership, which was initially started under President Barack Obama has since been relaunched under President Joe Biden. In addition to Indonesia’s traditional leadership role within Southeast Asia, Jakarta is also undergoing a period where foreign policy will be an elevated priority by circumstance, with Indonesia hosting the G-20 in 2022 and then the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2023, while also occupying the position of U.S.-ASEAN dialogue partner coordinator out to 2024.
The United States should also pay attention to smaller countries in Southeast Asia that have outsized importance. For example, Laos is at the forefront of U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia but typically finds it more difficult to attract sustained attention from U.S. policymakers. Looking further out, gains in U.S.-Laos ties, if sustained in the next one to two years, could pave the way for an elevation of the U.S.-Laos comprehensive partnership when Laos inherits the ASEAN chairmanship in 2024, which could see Biden himself visit Laos for the round of Asian summitry to be held there.
Of course, building a sustained U.S. commitment in Southeast Asia is not without its challenges. The Biden administration will need to juggle the twin realities that the United States is a domestically-consumed global power and also one that is looking to be more involved in the Indo-Pacific more generally. Engaging some Southeast Asian states could also prove challenging, either due to their own domestic circumstances or their wariness about being dragged into the throes of intensifying U.S.-China competition.
Nonetheless, the momentum generated by the Biden administration in Southeast Asia during its first year, coupled with the clear approach set out in the Indo-Pacific strategy, offers a firm foundation to build a sustainable regional policy. An easing of the Covid-19 pandemic could also pave the way for more face-to-face interactions beyond existing plans for the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN Summit to be held in Washington, DC.
In a letter to the Heritage Foundation in 1986, Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked that “Southeast Asians are more accurately aware of the uncertainties of U.S. policies than other regions of the world.” While that comment was far from surprising given the history of U.S. commitment to the region, one hopes that the Biden administration and others after it will be able to add at least a bit more certainty for Southeast Asian policymakers in the years to come.
Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran is a Fellow at the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington, DC. His new book is Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy.
Image: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attends a roundtable at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore before departing for Vietnam on the second leg of her Asia trip, August, 24, 2021. Reuters.