Illustration: Craig Stephens
Danny Russel
Danny Russel

If the US means to win back Asean from China, showing up isn’t enough

  • For years, dwindling US economic engagement hurt American credibility in the region, while China looked increasingly like the only game in town
  • Joe Biden has a critical chance to build on the momentum from his attendance at recent summits, if his administration can put its money where his mouth is
Southeast Asia, which hosted three major summits in November – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Group of 20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings – is a resource-rich and strategically vital region of immense importance to the US. But for years, Washington has underinvested in it.
Dwindling US economic and diplomatic engagement had taken a toll on American credibility in the region, while China – which is investing heavily – looked increasingly like the only game in town.

However, with the Democrats’ surprisingly robust showing in the midterm elections, the summits in Southeast Asia showcased a revitalised America that is deeply engaged in the region. This offers Joe Biden a critical chance to build on the momentum from these meetings if – and it’s a big “if” – his administration can put its money where his mouth is and deliver on its many promises.

It’s been said that 80 per cent of success in life is just showing up, and perhaps nowhere does that apply as aptly as in Asia, where respect and personal ties carry great weight. High-level US diplomacy matters greatly in Southeast Asia, and sustained engagement with Asean was crucial to former president Barack Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia.

Biden’s in-person attendance at the Asean summit in Cambodia (the first time in five years that a US president has attended) underscored the US desire to engage on issues that the region cares about and to showcase the US as a credible partner.

But showing up only gets Biden 80 per cent of the way to real credibility. And at a moment of intense geostrategic rivalry when smaller countries are making far-reaching decisions about where their interests lie, 80 per cent is simply not good enough.


US grants Philippines US$100 million in military aid

US grants Philippines US$100 million in military aid

The developing countries in Asia want follow-through on past pledges by Washington, not more acronyms and shiny new initiatives. The US has exhausted the power of promises; now implementation is the yardstick by which American credibility will be measured.

Hosting Asean leaders in Washington this May went a long way towards reversing the sense of neglect felt by Southeast Asian governments, and Asean’s decision at the Cambodia meeting to upgrade its relationship with the United States to a comprehensive strategic partnership is an important signal.

However, that signal should not be taken as reassuring evidence that the US has now done enough, but rather as a call for Washington to buckle down and follow through on its promises.

The US-Asean fact sheets from the Cambodia summit were filled with new programmes and undertakings by the administration. But past pledges by Washington remain largely undelivered.

The Mekong-US Partnership that was launched in 2020 and promised progress on economic connectivity, energy security and climate resilience is grievously underfunded. Massive illegal fishing is devastating Asia’s ocean ecosystems and threatening the food security of hundreds of millions of people.

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But while the 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy promises to expand the US Coast Guard presence, currently only a single coastguard cutter from Hawaii has been rotated to the region. Meanwhile, China boasts 130 coastguard ships and a much larger fleet of maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea.

Cost-effective soft power programmes like the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative work wonders in building bonds with the region’s most promising future leaders, yet a modest appropriation of US$25 million for the programme remains stuck in Congress.


Between two superpowers: Indonesia’s position in the US-China rivalry

Between two superpowers: Indonesia’s position in the US-China rivalry
It is true that the Biden administration has found innovative ways to strengthen existing partnerships and create new ones. Reinventing the Quad so that the US, Japan, Australia and India could jointly provide vaccines, STEM fellowships and other benefits to the region was an astute move that also helped repair the Quad’s image as an anti-China bloc.
The administration has also announced other initiatives that match urgent priorities in the region. The Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment could offer affordable but high-quality alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, while no substitute for a return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is at least a sign of Washington’s interest in sustaining economic engagement.

Focus on China competition risks wrecking new era of US-Asean relations

And the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness announced earlier this year has the potential to help small countries protect their valuable fish stocks and other undersea resources from illegal plundering by massive foreign fishing fleets.

Now that the summitry is over, the administration’s task is to fulfil the promises it has made to the region poised to be the world’s fourth largest economy. Biden needs to go further in showing that America and the West offer viable and sustainable alternatives to China’s initiatives and to demonstrate that he takes Asean’s needs and agenda seriously.

Implementing these measures is crucial; the United States simply cannot afford to cede the field to China. Real success in securing America’s vital economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia will require further resourcing and robust implementation of key programmes and promises to the region.

Southeast Asian countries are anything but naive about Beijing in light of their millennia of experience with the Chinese. Given the tightrope these small nations walk with their powerful neighbours, their willingness and ability to resist Chinese pressure increasingly rests on whether they can be convinced to trust that the US will reliably deliver a viable alternative.

Without putting real resources behind American engagement in the region, Biden risks losing the positive momentum his administration has built over the past two years through creative diplomacy and by showing up. In that case, 80 per cent will not be a passing grade.

Danny Russel is vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute