When Joe Biden took over the United States presidency last January, South-East Asia appeared to be low on his list of priorities. After setting the direction within the European and East Asian regions, the Biden administration has set sight on repairing the damage during the Obama era, and the neglected, somewhat transactional nature of relationships that endured during the Trump years. Biden has begun to re-engage the region with a lot of work to do.
The timing of Biden’s South-East Asia re-engagement is unfortunate, with most governments within the region concerned with Covid-19 spikes, within their respective nations. Myanmar is in the grip of a military Junta, after a coup earlier this year, Thailand is in the hands of an unpopular milocracy, Malaysia is in the midst of a political crisis, the Philippines will have a transition to a new administration next year, while some countries have edged closer to China. China is much more influential and militarily stronger than during the Obama era, and even the Trump years.
However, the pandemic has provided the Biden administration with the opportunity to participate in vaccine diplomacy, a well-received gesture, as all South-East Asian states are facing vaccine shortages. The Biden administration can also take advantage of the weaknesses in Chinese diplomacy. China’s growing aggressiveness on the South-China Sea, often abrupt demeanour in bilateral relations, and “wolf-warrior” diplomacy is not aiding its position in the region with member states.
Nevertheless, no South-East Asian nation subscribes to the concept of containing China in the classical ‘cold war’ sense. Any philosophical ‘cold war’ era approaches to the region, just won’t work. There is a measured admiration for China and its achievements over the region. China has developed respect among many quarters.
Nations of this region feel comfortable with a neighbour they have shared the region with for centuries, where family and clan ties overlap the region. Many of the elite families within the region are only a couple of generations away from Chinese ancestors, links that have become important for commerce, more than anything else. There is a large business orientated Chinese diaspora in the region as well.
One of the most telling things about the Biden administration’s South-East Asian initiative is that it was delivered by former army general and now defence secretary Lloyd Austin at the Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, six months after the Biden inauguration.
The policy narratives closely resemble those espoused by Kurt Michael Campbell, who was appointed National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, and was a former assistant secretary of state under the Obama administration. The US state department assembled a think-tank of academics and diplomats for this purpose.
The China Emergence
China is becoming diplomatically and militarily more aggressive. This reflects a deep political change within China, over the last decade, where Chinese premier Xi Jinping consolidated his power. The bureaucracy and leadership have been taken over by Xi loyalists from the New Zhijiang Army, and Shuang Xi Gang, apparatchiks in pursuing the “China Dream”, and “China Rejuvenation.”
Thus, the Chinese ideological situation is vastly different from the Obama years. This presents a great challenge to any rule-based economic, and military world order. This is particularly the case when China has a completely different vison of what the world should be like than the US.
The old Keenan containment doctrine of the Cold War cannot be applied to the region, as South-East Asian states cannot be simply classified as taking any “us or them” ideological orientation. South-East Asian states won’t necessarily take sides like most did in the Cold War. We are not witnessing a clash of ideologies, rather the process of China moulding the region, better suited to its own interests.
In 2019, a China defence white paper mapped out a strategic masterplan of creating a community of common destiny (CCD), within the philosophy of building a community with a ‘shared future of mankind.”
China is not the only concern for the US. Overtly, Myanmar is of concern, while covertly the situation within Thailand is silently noted, both issues where the US has no control over any outcomes. Nurturing the Vietnam relationship, and building a strong Singapore, appears to be of prime importance. The US lacks any significant relationship with Cambodia, and a spasmodic relationship with the Philippines. The US aims to build further on its relationship with Indonesia. The US hopes Malaysian concerns over Chinese incursions within its EEZ will lead to more cooperation within the South China Sea. Finally, the effectiveness of ASEAN would be of concern.
This is all within a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, where the public health resources of South-East Asian nations are thoroughly stressed.
The Biden Doctrine
Austin outlined the US belief on the importance of partnerships within the region. This is particularly important in the areas of (1) the Covid-19 pandemic, (2) climate change, (3) coercion from rising powers, (4) the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and (5) the Myanmar crisis.
Austin emphasised that the US is not expecting South-East Asian nations to be forced to make a choice between the US and China. The US intends to seek areas of mutual interest in bilateral and multilateral relations, rather than pursuing US interests. The US is seeking a stable and constructive relationship with China, within the South China Sea.
The US also sees a central role for ASEAN to play within the region, pointing to its diplomatic efforts on Myanmar. Austin’s vison is that ASEAN can complement the QUAD, where members are domiciled on the peripheries of the region. Although, what specific initiatives the US would like to see were left out. Austin just espoused the theme common security as underpinning cooperation.
Austin outlines three phases in the doctrine, (1) Covid recovery, where the US has already donated 40 million vaccine doses to Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, (2) investing in cooperative partnerships across the region, through diplomacy and military means to create integrated deterrence through coordination and networking, and (3) developing a long-term coming together in partnership within a rules-based order in the region.
Austin mentions areas within the rules-based order that will have priority; freedom of the sea, human rights, and the resolution of community disputes. Although, the US affirms its desire for a stronger relationship with China, it disputes the nine-dash line.
Kurt Campbell clearly states that these initiatives must be tested and fine tuned as they are developed and implemented. This strategy will be challenging and a learning experience for the administration.
This is a clear departure from Trump’s unilateral and transactional nature of his administration’s approach to the region. The Biden administration has indicated a strong aspiration to be involved within the region. However, it has so far left out any return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the centrepiece of the Obama pivot to Asia, that Trump cancelled upon coming to office.
The doctrine recognizes US weaknesses with some South-East Asian state relationships, and with a realization that any security initiatives within the region, cannot be US responsibility alone. Thus, a cooperative approach is sort, underpinning the need to engage China’s influence with both soft power and a military presence.
This acknowledges an era where China is recognized as a major influence within the region, with two-prong-diplomacy. In a good cop-bad cop routine, US secretary of state Antony Blinken dressed down China at their summit in Alaska on issues of human rights, regional aggressiveness, economic malpractices, while the US is working on issues with mutual interest with China, with US climate envoy John Kerry’s visit to China to discuss common ground for the upcoming UN climate change summit in Glasgow, later in the year.
The Biden administration is taking a team approach. Vice president Kamala Harris is set to play a major symbolic role with her forthcoming visit to long-time ally Singapore and to further serenade Vietnam. This is following on the footsteps of secretary Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman’s visit to China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and Indonesia.
A brief situational audit
Singapore is the strongest ally of the US in the region today. Singapore supports a strong US presence within the region, and thus is providing logistical support for US military aircraft and navel vessels, as well as rotational deployments. The US supports Singapore armed forces training overseas, where Singapore has a number of squadrons of aircraft in the US.
Austin’s latest visit saw both parties strengthen cooperation in AI, cyber defence, and strategic communications, and the establishment of a multilateral terrorism information facility, which the US is a partner. The Biden administration just announced the nomination of philanthropist Jonathan Kaplan as US ambassador to Singapore, a post left vacant under the Trump administration, since 2017.
US relations with Indonesia are strong, where the US has substantial commercial investment in the country. Indonesia is strategically important due to the Malacca Straits, which is the busiest shipping lane in the world. The US and Indonesia share a new joint coast guard facility in Batam, focusing on marine security and anti-piracy operations. The two countries also carry out regular joint naval exercises, and an annual joint military exercise designated Garuda Shield. Indonesia also carries out joint exercises with China, conducting good relationships with both China and the US.
The US has a good relationship with Malaysia, with strong commercial, and military links. Malaysia has become weary of China of late due to PLA air force incursions into Malaysian territorial waters, in the South China Sea. The US has also had a long relationship with Thailand. Although the US was critical of the 2014 coup by the military, which ousted an elected government, both countries are still participating in good military cooperation, with many joint military exercises. The US is using U-Tapao Naval Airfield as a key refuelling stop between the US, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Like Indonesia, Thailand also has good relations with China.
Vietnam is a priority for the US. Bogged down with legacy issues involving the remains of MIAs from the Vietnam war, and suspicion of US intentions by Vietnam, the relationship has been slow to develop. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea maybe influencing better relations between the US and Vietnam. To date there has been bilateral cooperation with maritime law enforcement and capacity building. There are rumours that Harris will sign a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which would set the stage for the exchange of classified military information between the parties.
Philippine relations with the US have been a little erratic during the Duterte presidency. There may still be some disappointment at the US handling of the Scarborough Shoal issue back in 2012, where China broke an agreement brokered by the US. However, Austin went away from his recent visit to the Philippines with the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) renewed, after the Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte threatened to terminate it.
The increase of tensions with China in the South China Sea, with PLA soldiers disguised as fishermen within the Philippines EEZ, has possibility assisted in the softening of president Duterte’s attitude towards the US. There will be a new president in the Philippines next year, which the US is waiting for.
The US relationship with Cambodia remains poor. Former president Obama’s meeting with the Cambodian leader Hun Sen back in 2012, was reported to be very tense over human rights issues. US naval ship visits, joint military exercises, counter terrorism training, and joint human trafficking work has done little to improve relations. The US relationship with Laos is transactional, but cordial.
After the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, Biden imposed sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and their business associates. Like Cambodia, Myanmar will be a low priority for the US, as it is difficult to see how the Biden strategy can bring these countries closer to the US.
The Biden strategy places an importance on the role of ASEAN within the region. However, since the passing of the former secretary-general Dr Surin Pitsuwan, and Covid-19 travel restrictions across the region over the last 18 months, ASEAN appears to be irrelevant. The AEC exists in name only, and important partnership mechanisms like the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership have not been activated.
ASEAN, by default has given legitimacy to the Myanmar Junta. The appointment of Brunei’s deputy foreign minister Ergwan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, lacks the weight and experience of other potential choices. There is really a lack of any real political will for ASEAN to promote any return to democracy in Myanmar, as most ASEAN members are authoritarian governments in their own right.
There doesn’t seem to be any political willingness, on the part of its member countries to change this, so US hopes for the grouping may be unfulfilled.
The Biden doctrine has many tests and challenges ahead. Obama found his pivot to Asia very difficult to implement than was anticipated. Obama’s pressing of human rights went largely unheeded, causing more friction, if anything. Biden’s value-based partnerships maybe found just as easily testing in many circumstances.
Chinese premier Xi Jinping has consolidated his position in China, just as Putin has in Russia. China and Russia are getting closer together. Personal relationships may do more to shape the region, than reliance on a doctrine thought out in a state department think tank. Thus, future Biden-Xi, and Putin meetings will be most important.
Kurt Campbell himself concedes that this doctrine is only work in progress and will need change and modification as time goes along. The third part of the doctrine is most important, which to date, the administration has been largely silent upon. Economic growth is going to be of paramount importance, when the region is on the other side of the pandemic. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or some new initiative is missing from the doctrine, as Campbell admits. This is still being developed.
One of the biggest threats to the Biden doctrine is happening right now. The fall of Kabul in Afghanistan, and the pictures coming out are following the fall of Saigon script. This could dent the prestige of the US, and injure perceptions of Biden as a superpower leader. A lot will depend upon how the media portrays the Taliban takeover of the country.
For decades now, the US has on an ad hoc basis cooperated and developed relations with South-East Asian nations. It is really difficult to see how the Biden doctrine will bring to the US more friends than they already have, and make much difference to the Chinese position within the region. What the Biden doctrine may do, is to help prevent the deterioration of the US position anymore than it is now in the region.