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How Should the US Engage in Southeast Asia?

How Should the US Engage in Southeast Asia?

By Elina Noor and Mark S. Cogan. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

A Thoughtful Approach in Southeast Asia

By Elina Noor – Deputy Director, Asia Society Policy Institute

For the United States, promoting democracy and human rights against the backdrop of competition with China runs up against two sobering realities in Southeast Asia: ideological agnosticism and resistance to picking sides. A thoughtful U.S. approach that seeks to make a meaningful impact in the region starts with an appreciation of Southeast Asian perspectives.

A Focus on Framing

First, framing is crucial. At best, the premise that Southeast Asia is or should be a battlefield for influence – whether for the United States, China, or any other power – is troubling. At worst, it is intellectually lazy, patronizing, and imperious. It reduces the rationale for engaging the region to geopolitical contestation rather than for its own merits. It also imposes a false hierarchy of values and infantilizes Southeast Asia’s role in determining its own future.

Southeast Asia’s diversity is often stated but little appreciated. There may be only 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but they are home to more than 600 million people of innumerable ethnicities, tribes, languages, and faiths. The countries, mostly young post-colonial states that gained freedom either by decree or bloodshed only a generation or two ago, represent some of the most economically promising in the world. However, their annals are rooted in the civilizations and empires of the past before the power centers of kingdoms and principalities were shoehorned into nation-state constructs and before the region’s recent history was pockmarked by the Cold War’s proxy conflicts. Countries still bear the scars of anti-communism campaigns, whether in Indonesia where civil-military relations remain delicate, or in Laos, where about 80 million unexploded ordnances still threaten the lives of its 7 million people. Therefore, great power competition has a continuing and uneasy trajectory in Southeast Asia.

Despite the inherent challenges of integrating different political systems and cultures into a single grouping, ASEAN deliberately chose to include governments of democratic, communist, and monarchic stripes under the assurance of non-interference and consensus. This commitment to equality of membership, regardless of ideology or development status, forms the basis of interactions among ASEAN states and with their partners. The desire to preserve political independence in Southeast Asia and, by extension, avert entrapment in a superpower play has also been stressed by the region’s political and policy elite. Treating Southeast Asia as a pawn in a great power contestation would be tone-deaf and it would make for an unconstructive, flawed, and short-sighted policy starting point.

US Credibility in the Region

Second, credibility matters. The United States often views itself as “a city upon a hill” to be emulated in its democratic progress by others. USAID support for civil society in Southeast Asia, U.S. labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, as well as the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons’ reports have provided helpful external impetus and political cover for Southeast Asian countries to pressure difficult internal reforms in these areas.

However, revelations about Abu GhraibGuantanamo Bay, and “over the horizon” drone strikes that decimate civilians, including children, cast a long and lasting pall on U.S. human rights rhetoric. The distinction between authoritarian and democratic countries that America often draws in its messaging to the world is undermined by its continued partnerships with the former, often in the name of national security. Realists and pragmatists understand that values and interests do not always align in the conduct of foreign policy, despite the best of intentions. Striking a balanced message on values in Southeast Asia would be helped by a less moralistic tone and quieter diplomacy.

Humility in US Foreign Policy

Third, humility goes far. Last year’s protests across the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd demonstrated once again the country’s reckoning with systemic injustice. The societal and partisan divisions that have only become more entrenched raised questions about core American values and the credibility of the U.S. democratic model for the world.

Despite the United States’’ domestic challenges, there is a significant well of goodwill in Southeast Asia for the United States. The United States’ long diplomatic, economic, and military presence in the region makes it a natural and familiar partner. If 1,000 policy wonks across the region had to choose, 61.5% would pick the United States over China (though 53.8% would still prefer a unified ASEAN to withstand the pressures of both). Southeast Asia’s confidence in the United States as a strategic partner in the region actually grew from 34.9% in 2020 to 55.4% in 2021.

The Biden administration’s early recognition that U.S. engagement and leadership abroad would be better served by humility and a focus on the “immense amount of work we have to do at home” has been a welcome and refreshing change from the hubris of the last few years. Senior-level visits to Southeast Asia beginning this year, as well as interactions with its leaders, demonstrate that the administration is listening to the region and its priorities, especially in the areas of public health and economic recovery. The administration has repeatedly and explicitly affirmed its support for ASEAN, even in the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States arrangement. It has also significantly deemphasized its public messaging on China when communicating with Southeast Asian officials. President Biden also attended, albeit virtually, the recent week of ASEAN Summitry after presidential neglect since 2017. These are all encouraging steps to revitalize U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is unsold on a values-based relationship not because it hates freedom, democracy, or human rights. On the contrary, the region’s civil society and youth activism in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia are robust despite opposing pressures. Southeast Asian governments are wary because they are aware that no country has a monopoly on these ideals, because they have suffered countless lectures on human rights and democracy by the same powers that subjugated their countries, and because they see little benefit in splitting the world into a false dichotomy of democratic and authoritarian states. Washington’s best approach to both shoring up partnerships and promoting good governance in the region is to build on what it has begun to do with continued humility.

A Pragmatic and United Approach in Southeast Asia

By Mark S. Cogan – Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka

China’s dominance in Southeast Asia is obvious anywhere you look. Long-standing ties and investment in Cambodia earned Beijing the opportunity to act as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s proxy vote in ASEAN during a pivotal year. China’s upstream dams and subsequent hydroelectric power demand compromised livelihoods for Mekong River countries and created leverage over downstream economies. China’s relationships with Thailand and Myanmar complicated efforts to resolve a burgeoning civil war and humanitarian crisis — one that now involves regional powers like Japan, India, and Russia.

The advantages for China – both in terms of infrastructure investments in Southeast Asia and diplomatic ties free from the strings of human rights and democratization – were made largely in the absence of the United States from the region, evidenced by the Obama Administration’s failed “pivot” to Asia and Trump’s failed “America First” foreign policy. The consequences of American foreign policy vacillation and inconsistency, in part, is an emboldened China. The missteps are almost too many to count. For example, the failure to consistently engage with Thailand in the aftermath of the May 2014 coup d’état may have pushed the military regime closer into the arms of China. Equally troubling was President Biden’s diplomatic snub at Thailand at the December “Summit for Democracy.” Many uninvited ASEAN countries, although clearly lacking in democratization, could have benefitted from additional linkages to best practices elsewhere around the globe. These mistakes must be remedied.

Integrating US Allies in Southeast Asia

In order to support democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia, the United States must confront its past, acknowledge its many mistakes, and present a pragmatic yet united front against a more aggressive, authoritarian China. The Great Power rivalry has already begun, despite American missteps. For years, Beijing and Washington have engaged in a long-standing diplomatic row over human rights, with China accusing consecutive American governments of racial discrimination and mass incarceration, while the United States repeatedly alleges human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of Western China. The latest result is a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, joined by Australia and the UK.

The United States needs to remain engaged with states diametrically opposed to American, if not universal, values while impressing upon the importance of those values and the benefits of a sustained American presence in the region. The Biden Summit could have been a prime example of both American engagement with Southeast Asia leaders and an example of how to spread the benefits of democratic values. The reality and the failure of the December summit were that Biden did not have to exclude anyone. While the 2021 version might have been only a start, it could have been held region-by-region, with Quad partners such as Japan, India, or Australia playing a key role in shepherding traditional partners back toward partnerships with the West.

For example, let us not discount Japan’s favorable relationship with Cambodia after the Paris Conference in 1991, its contribution to national reconstruction, as well its current leading role in national development. As of 2019, the accumulated Japanese assistance to Cambodia totaled almost $3 billion. Japan’s efforts in Cambodia have ostensibly offset China’s influence through healthcare, education, infrastructure, and agricultural investments. Similar leading roles could have been constructed for key Indo-Pacific partners — India for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, for example. A regional and/or partner-centered approach to American diplomacy would have done well to quell much of the criticism that Elina Noor mentions above.

Commitment to US Values

American diplomacy must also be matched with action. While I agree with Elina’s position that treating Southeast Asia as a battlefield is fraught with error, America and its allies must match Chinese aggression with action, if necessary. American allies cannot send a competing message that democracies will fail to deliver and are indeed in a state of decline. American partners in the Indo-Pacific have to send a clear signal that democracy is something worth fighting for –not necessarily physically – but in the case of Taiwan and elsewhere, that defending democracy also means defending the hard-won post-war rules-based international order.

The United States must also learn to play the long game. China did not move into Southeast Asia quickly. It did so over time and has traversed difficult relationships, most notably with Vietnam. If Biden, or any future administration, has designs on democracy and a renewed respect for human rights, it must recognize some of the shifts in the region that might spell opportunity down the road. Thailand’s younger generation has proved different from previous generations, chopping slowly away at the social and political taboos that have previously restrained democracy and monarchical reform. While civil society and press freedom in Thailand have been curtailed, it does not mean that they are not vibrant or critical to democratic resurgence. The same can be said for Cambodia, where an entire political opposition lies in hiding or in prison.

ASEAN Support

Democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia must also be seen as a slow and gradual process — a battle measured in small, almost negligible victories or defeats. Championing both must mean a multi-front war, fought in the halls of the United Nations through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), through its many Treaty Bodies, as well as through ad-hoc coalitions designed to disrupt China’s growing UN influence. It must mean supporting institutions like ASEAN despite its aversion to interference and supporting trade regimes that, over time, could undermine China’s economic dominance. America cannot overcome Chinese dominance in Southeast Asia by itself. It must become more consistent and much more realistic.

This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

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