Service members from the U.S. and partner nations in the Asia-Pacific region conduct the opening ceremony for Exercise Cobra Gold 2022 at Camp Red Horse, U-Tapao, Kingdom of Thailand on 22 February 2022. (Photo: Cpl. Moises Rodriguez / U.S. Marine Corps)

Advancing U.S. Security Commitments to Southeast Asia Under Biden 

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Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine would accentuate concerns about Washington's security commitments to Southeast Asia. To gain further traction, Washington needs to invest in individual Southeast Asia countries and expand defence partnerships with allies and partners.

The Biden Administration has gained some traction in Southeast Asia in the area of defence engagement with Southeast Asian partners, but Washington still has its work cut out. In the latest 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, for example, Southeast Asian respondents largely warmed towards the Quadrilateral Security Grouping (Quad), but had mixed perceptions about the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) arrangement. 

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine would compound concerns about Washington’s commitment to the region, particularly its commitments to maintaining stability in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Before the invasion, Southeast Asian states were already consumed by Covid-19 and an array of regional issues, including the situation in Myanmar, an assertive China, and a constrained ASEAN. Additionally, U.S. efforts to build out its regional security commitments compete with China’s aggressive bid to build its own defence relationships with select Southeast Asian countries, of which Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base is a prime example.

Washington’s problems with Southeast Asia has a longer history. As I argue in my new book Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy, post-WWII U.S. defence commitment in Asia has traditionally revolved around its alliance system. This, however, is not without its challenges in Southeast Asia. The 1954 Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) saw its eventual demise after two decades. Though Washington engaged a wider array of partners like Vietnam after the Cold War and broadened interactions in areas such as exercises, it encountered sensitivities concerning U.S. credibility on issues like the South China Sea.  

To its credit, U.S. policymakers have kept their eye on the ball. In the coming weeks and months, they are expected to begin rolling out tangible and practical examples to ‘extend and modernise’ the security pillar within the newly-released U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. To succeed in Southeast Asia, Washington will need to invest in individual Southeast Asian countries, regional allies and partners, and Washington’s own domestic capabilities. 

First, Washington should expand security activities with the broadest array of Southeast Asian countries possible. While U.S. policymakers have repeatedly called for diversifying U.S. regional presence since the end of the Cold War, recentpublicly released U.S. strategy documents have reinforced the fact that work remains to be done for various reasons, including regional countries’ contested domestic politics and misaligned threat perceptions. A broader, flexible network of security alignments can accommodate existing tighter alliances, while also leaving room for incorporating partners and friends more comfortable with a spectrum of looser arrangements.

A critical starting point will be reinforcing existing arrangements with U.S. allies, such as the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines. The engagement of other (non-allied) partners is vital. U.S. security cooperation with some Southeast Asian countries are still in their early stages, be it coast guard cooperation with Indonesia that took off under the Obama administration or the first army-to-army exercise with Brunei that began in 2018. Beyond this, Washington should pursue defence engagement with other smaller Southeast Asian countries it has not engaged with as much due to geopolitical sensitivities (read: China). To broaden the existing U.S. security network, Washington can provide assistance to the civil aviation sector of Timor-Leste or resolve war legacy issues with Laos. 

While U.S. policymakers have repeatedly called for diversifying U.S. regional presence since the end of the Cold War, recent, publicly released U.S. strategy documents have reinforced the fact that work remains to be done for various reasons, including regional countries’ contested domestic politics and misaligned threat perceptions.

Second, the United States should strengthen defence engagement with extra-regional allies and partners – what the Indo-Pacific Strategy refers to as Washington’s ‘single greatest asymmetric strength’. The past decade has already seen several notable examples where security engagement has been advanced under the banner of policies focused on Southeast Asia, including India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s Vientiane Vision. 

This could begin through occasional U.S. involvement in partner efforts in specific functional areas, be it Australia’s work on cyber security or the European Union’s effort at countering illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). It could also involve the addition of non-traditional security issues within broader minilateral mechanisms, such as the Friends of the Lower Mekong, which includes U.S. allies Australia, Japan, the European Union and South Korea. There could even be room for functional, Quad-Plus like engagements on priorities relevant to Southeast Asian states, such as on Covid-19-related security areas.

Third, the United States should invest more in strengthening its own capabilities. Southeast Asian countries want to see additional resources invested in the Biden team’s Indo-Pacific strategy. This was a challenge for the Obama administration when it advanced the U.S. pivot to Asia following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis while trying to manage the fallout from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, surveys of Southeast Asian elites have already shown majority acceptance of China as the most influential political and strategic power in Southeast Asia, and a lack of confidence in Washington as a strategic partner and security provider. This perception would have only been exacerbated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which could detract Washington’s focus from the Indo-Pacific region.  

That investment would begin by taking follow up steps following the expected release of more defence-related strategic documents like the National Defense Strategy and the full National Security Strategy. The steps would include protecting key line items like the Maritime Security Initiative in the U.S. defence budget. It will also require leveraging a mix of military and non-military tools with allies and partners that could impact the wider Indo-Pacific theatre. This is in line with the administration’s own conception of ‘integrated deterrence‘, which would include work on areas like supply chains and critical and emerging technologies under mechanisms like the Quad and AUKUS trilateral security pact. 

To be sure, advancing these lines of effort would not be without their share of challenges. Many Southeast Asian states do not want to be caught in the crosshairs of intensifying U.S.-China competition. Domestically, sustaining an Asia-first defence policy strategically can prove difficult for a global power like the United States. Yet if the Biden administration is serious about bolstering Indo-Pacific security, getting Southeast Asia right will be a critical part of that equation. And doing so will require adroit management of the U.S.’s challenges in forging security commitments to Southeast Asia comprehensively and sustainably.

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