In recent years, the United States has sought to involve its middle-power friends and allies in various regional initiatives to counter a rising China. Southeast Asia continues to have mixed feelings about this.
In recent years, the United States’ initiation of regional security configurations such as the Quadrilateral Security Grouping (Quad) and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) agreement has sparked concerns in Southeast Asia about their potential to undermine ASEAN centrality and increase risks of a confrontation with China.
The latest 2022 State of Southeast Asian Survey suggests there is increased receptivity to the Quad (an informal grouping comprising Australia, Japan, India and the United States). But there has been a mixed reception towards AUKUS, a technology-sharing agreement that will provide Australia with, among other things, nuclear-powered submarines.
In the 2020 edition of the survey, less than half of the respondents (45.8 per cent) viewed the Quad as having a ‘positive impact’ on Southeast Asia’s security. But the general sense towards the Quad was mixed. 61.6 per cent of respondents said their countries should participate in ‘security initiatives and military exercises’ organised by the Quad. The report’s authors noted that while ASEAN states participated in military exercises involving Quad countries, such as Cobra Gold and Malabar, this did not necessarily translate into support for the new strategic alignment.
The latest 2022 Survey edition shows significant warming towards the Quad. 58.5 per cent agreed that the strengthening of the Quad and tangible cooperation in areas such as vaccine security and climate change is ‘positive and reassuring’ for Southeast Asia. Respondents from six ASEAN states registered even higher figures: the Philippines (81.6 per cent), Laos (75.0 per cent), Vietnam (65.9 per cent), Indonesia (64.9 per cent), Singapore (63.5 per cent) and Myanmar (61.4 per cent).
This warmer reception towards the Quad should be seen in the context of wariness among Southeast Asians towards China. About 38.2 per cent of respondents saw China as a ‘revisionist’ power. Another 34.7 per cent saw China as taking over Washington’s regional leadership role. In addition, Southeast Asian receptivity towards the Quad was probably helped by efforts by Quad members to deliver tangible value to the region. In March 2021, the Quad announced that it would form working groups in areas such as Covid-19 vaccines and climate change. In September 2021, India said it would ship eight million Covid-19 vaccines as part of the Quad’s plan to supply one billion vaccines across Asia by the end of 2022.
Put together, perceptions of the Quad and AUKUS show Southeast Asians’ dilemma: they hope that such arrangements would help the region cope with China’s growing assertiveness, yet they are worried about the consequences of such arrangements, be it triggering a regional arms race and/or fears that ASEAN would be undermined.
But the more sanguine view of the Quad contrasts with perceptions of AUKUS, which was announced on 15 September 2021.
The largest group of survey respondents, or 36.4 per cent, said AUKUS would help ‘balance China’s growing military power’. Respondents from certain ASEAN countries scored higher than the ASEAN figure: Myanmar (63 per cent), the Philippines’ (60.0 per cent) and Singapore (50.9 per cent) and Vietnam (46.5 per cent). The strong support for AUKUS among Filipino respondents was well-expressed by their foreign minister Teddy Locsin. In an erudite statement released four days after the AUKUS announcement, he said that the bolstering of the power projection capabilities of Australia, as a ‘near friend’ would help ‘maintain the regional balance of power’ and enable Canberra to better respond to regional threats.
But overall, the positive view of AUKUS is outweighed by more guarded perceptions: 22.5 per cent of respondents saw the deal as sparking a regional arms race. Other respondents see it as weakening ASEAN centrality (18.0 per cent) and undermining the nuclear weapons regime against proliferation (12.3 per cent).
Put together, perceptions of the Quad and AUKUS show Southeast Asians’ dilemma: they hope that such arrangements would help the region cope with China’s growing assertiveness, yet they are worried about the consequences of such arrangements, be it triggering a regional arms race and/or fears that ASEAN would be undermined. Concerns about AUKUS, in particular, stem less from the three-way deal per se, but more from attendant fears of an erosion of regional stability with the projection of US and allied forces into the region at a time of intensified Sino-US rivalry.
The Quad and AUKUS represent only a part of the United States’ engagement with the region. But regional expectations of the two deals mirror hope placed in Washington’s broader remit. The 2022 Survey put the US in top position in championing global free trade (30.1 per cent) and maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law (36.6 per cent). In the 2021 Survey, the US was placed in third and second position respectively.
It is an open secret that in their ensuing rivalry, the US and China have been seeking to win friends and influence regional countries. At this, the US would need to maintain a steady course in courting ASEAN states.
One, there has to be a sustained focus on delivering on issues such as vaccines and climate change. In the maritime domain, the region needs the US to continue supplying assistance and hardware, particularly to those threatened by China in the South China Sea. For example, the US has given Vietnam about US$60 million in security assistance under the Foreign Military Financing programme. It has offered to transfer and maintain two former US Coast Guard cutters.
Second, the US needs to find a way back into mega free trade deals. In its Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States released earlier this month, Washington said its Indo-Pacific economic framework would focus on areas such as supply chains, infrastructure and trade facilitation. While these goals are laudable, the holy grail for the US in Southeast Asia remains trade agreements that grant new market access. Notably, China is part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (which the US withdrew from in 2017).
Third, the US needs to assure regional states that Washington would do its utmost to limit the risk of conflict with China, be it in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits. In a November 2021 summit, US President Joseph Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sought to put ‘guardrails’ to prevent armed escalation. Washington has its work cut out for it. There has been a thaw in Southeast Asians’ coolness towards arrangements like the Quad and AUKUS. But whether perceptions grow warmer would have to depend on Washington’s efforts.
William Choong is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.