As competition with China becomes an organising principle of American foreign policy, realpolitik is the name of the game in U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden skipped the ASEAN summit in Jakarta and travelled to Hanoi instead for a state visit. The decision is disappointing to ASEAN, but it is not entirely surprising. Three years into office, the Biden administration has proven itself more as a hardcore realist than a devout multilateralist, as it prioritises bilateral ties with certain Southeast Asian nations which can be of greater utility to US strategic interests than what ASEAN can offer.
To its credit, the Biden administration has made efforts to remedy U.S. neglect of ASEAN under the Trump presidency. Biden attended the 2022 ASEAN summit in Cambodia, and launched the ASEAN-U.S. comprehensive strategic partnership. He also welcomed ASEAN leaders to a special summit in Washington in May 2022. It has been a U.S. diplomatic ritual to reaffirm support for ASEAN centrality, both singly and together with its partners in the Quad and the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral.
U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia is not an either-or question between participating in ASEAN multilateralism and strengthening key bilateral relations. It can and must do both. The crucial question is where the focus of U.S. strategic investment lies and which is given first consideration in the allocation of U.S. resources and political attention. Biden’s prioritisation of Vietnam over ASEAN could well be because a swing by Hanoi would bring more strategic gains for Washington.
Vietnam certainly possesses many merits. It is the U.S.’ 7th largest trading partner; its trade volume with America is the largest within ASEAN. It is emerging as a destination for American companies looking to diversify supply chains from China. American soft power is popular amongst the Vietnamese, many of whom look towards the U.S. for business and education opportunities.
A fortiori, bolstering ties with Vietnam is viewed by Washington as crucial to its Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering China’s influence. With the elevation of U.S.-Vietnam ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Washington is now formally on par with China at the top of Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy. The upgrade is definitely a diplomatic and strategic achievement for Washington, which will pave the way for closer economic and security cooperation between the two countries.
As competition with China becomes an organising principle of American foreign policy, realpolitik is the name of the game in the U.S.’ regional engagement. Washington has and will invest in strengthening ties with a few countries that it views of strategic importance to its Indo-Pacific strategy. Vietnam is one, alongside Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. This does not mean these countries will do the American bidding in ganging up against China. But they do have certain strategic concerns about China’s influence and behaviour — be it over maritime disputes or the need to keep a balance of power in the region — that incentivises them to support U.S. security engagement.
Engaging Indonesia is a matter of strategic necessity. Indonesia’s non-aligned tradition, its booming economic ties with China, and President Jokowi’s business-first approach put structural constraints on American ambitions to enlist Jakarta into its side. But given that Indonesia is an emerging power in its own right and a titular leader of ASEAN, Jakarta remains a priority on the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific map. Biden skipped Jakarta this month but he will soon receive Jokowi at the White House in November.
With Manila, the pendulum has again swung in favour of Washington with the alliance’s reinvigoration under President Marcos Jr. Rising tensions in the South China Sea have pushed Manila further into America’s embrace, making it a focal point of U.S. power projection in the region with increased joint training, exercises and greater basing access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Singapore is not a U.S. ally but it is the most credible and consistent security partner that supports American military presence and defence engagements in the region. The significance of Singapore is evident in its specific mention, alongside Vietnam, in the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. In the early months of the administration, the U.S. Secretary of Defence and Vice President visited Singapore and Hanoi to signal their commitment to Southeast Asia. Thailand, albeit a U.S. ally, was off the map.
U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia is not an either-or question between participating in ASEAN multilateralism and strengthening key bilateral relations. It can and must do both. The crucial question is where the focus of U.S. strategic investment lies and which is given first consideration in the allocation of U.S. resources and political attention.
That the Biden administration is not a devout multilateralist is reflected in how it puts more resources in bilateral and minilateral engagements than through ASEAN mechanisms. Of US$200 million of Covid-19 relief support for the region, only US$500,000 went to the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund (as opposed to US$6 million each by China and South Korea). Washington has put money where its heart is: Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines were among the top ten recipients of its Covid-19 vaccine donations. Washington is not actively pursuing another ASEAN-U.S. exercise under the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting framework since the inaugural drills in 2019. But U.S. exercises with Indo-Pacific partners, including Southeast Asian countries, have increased in both numbers and new configurations, including the recent U.S.-Philippines-Japan trilateral drills.
Realpolitik also dictates a great deal of expediency in America’s values agenda towards Southeast Asian countries, subject to their respective geostrategic value. Washington criticised Cambodia’s 2023 elections as “neither free nor fair” and paused assistance programmes to the country. But in Hanoi, Biden understood the paramount importance of engaging Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who last year pledged with fellow communist leader Xi Jinping of China to fight “peaceful evolution” and “colour revolution”. Washington has not only played down ideological differences with Hanoi but also deftly blurred the line between the Vietnamese state and the VCP in Biden’s summit diplomacy.
Some Southeast Asians today fondly recall President Obama who made ASEAN a pillar of his Asia “pivot”. The Biden administration has made a break from that solicitous approach which did not effectively deal with the strategic challenge that China presents to Washington. As Bilahari Kausikan said, Biden’s approach is essentially a more “polite form” of Trump’s crude transactionalism. The “good old days” are gone, and the region needs to update its strategic outlook and diplomatic playbook accordingly.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Cha Hae Won is a Research Officer in the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.