Persuasion in Southeast Asia reveals the United States’ strategic egoism

On December 13, US Secretary of State Blinken landed in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, to deliver a speech on America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy.” His first journey to Southeast Asia after entering office would include stops in Malaysia and Thailand.

According to some sources, Southeast Asia has grown increasingly relevant in the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. The rationale is straightforward. In addition to retaining its political, economic, and military influence, the United States prioritizes restraining and constraining China at sea.

As China’s national strength grows, the US has upped its containment operations against it. Since former President Trump’s withdrawal from a regional trade deal in 2017, the US has lacked a formal economic interaction framework in Southeast Asia, restricting its capacity to exercise influence, while China’s influence has grown during this time.

China-ASEAN ties have advanced at a rapid pace in recent years, transforming into major partners in good neighborliness, mutual trust, mutual benefit, and win-win outcomes. The commercial and trade relations between China and ASEAN have also been steadily improved, yielding positive outcomes. The United States’ need to “step in” in Southeast Asia has grown increasingly pressing, both economically and politically.

Since assuming office at the beginning of this year, the Biden administration has emphasized the significance of Southeast Asian nations, created a new position of “Asian Affairs Director” inside the ruling team, and began economic and military rivalries against East Asian countries.

What’s intriguing is that Blinken’s visit is just around the corner, and Cambodia, which isn’t on the list, is the first to suffer. According to a Reuters article, the United States has lately imposed sanctions on Cambodia, including arms embargoes and new export restrictions, in order to counter China’s rising influence in the country. The US sanctions on Cambodia appear to be signaling that the US’s so-called “retake of Southeast Asia” is based primarily on pressure, including both economic and military pressure.

The South China Sea and its surrounding regions are vital to America’s “Indo-Pacific strategy” and “Return to Sea Control” policies. However, Southeast Asia has been a weak link in America’s military and maritime policy in Asia Pacific since the conclusion of the Cold War, as seen by the severely inadequate forward military presence, lack of a credible strategic pivot, and lack of a formidable alliance structure. As a result, amid the chants and narratives of “major nation competition” and “China threat,” the United States has made little attempt to emphasize Southeast Asia’s strategic importance.

However, the US’s achievements over the last 10 years have fallen far short of its professed lofty expectations, with all advancement focused on military security. With growing more regular close-in reconnaissance, cruise, and deterrent in the South China Sea, Washington has significantly boosted its military presence in the region. In military exercises, training, and arms transactions, it has also increased engagement with Southeast Asian countries.

Nevertheless, there has been little progress in diplomatic, economic, and other areas. For one thing, America is solely concerned with military protection, whereas diplomatic engagement, economic aid, and collaboration are only sweeteners to entice Southeast Asian countries to join the alliance. For another, America is incapable of acting simultaneously on all fronts. Its policies are never constant, its economic strength and influence are declining, and its soft power is waning, all of which have had a major impact on the execution of its goals and programs as administrations change.

Meanwhile, the majority of Southeast Asian countries are unhappy with America’s regional and maritime policies. First, the United States views Southeast Asia as the primary battleground in its so-called “major-country struggle,” and is attempting to more publicly organize regional governments to build a strengthened front against China. However, the majority of regional nations do not wish to take sides in the conflict between the two heavyweights. Even if some of those with maritime issues with China expect that the US would help them stop China’s “extension on the sea,” they are not prepared to be used as cannon fodder in the China-US confrontation.

Second, the United States is only half-hearted in its assistance to Southeast Asia, generally settling for lip service. In terms of policy consistency, the US is the least dependable major power in all of ASEAN’s cooperative mechanisms, falling below China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, and Russia. In terms of regional economic development, collaboration, and infrastructure improvement, the United States trails considerably behind China and Japan.

Third, America’s strategies of establishing narrow multilateralism and cliques would jeopardize ASEAN’s crucial role in East Asian cooperation. The ASEAN nations are clearly not important players in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The US and ASEAN have a strategic misalignment because the former is so focused on major-country competition that it lacks the ability or desire to provide more public goods in other areas, whereas Southeast Asian countries are still focused on socio-economic development, and the US’s protection, hedging, and containment, as important as they are, are not essential or indispensable.

Based on recent US official statements, it is clear that Blinken would continue to stir, explicitly or covertly, in the three Southeast Asian nations in an attempt to win over crucial countries and harm their relations with China. Will this provocation, though, have an impact on the relationship between these nations and China? This appears to be a low-probability scenario. China is not only the largest trading partner for several Southeast Asian countries, but it also has a lot of political influence.

The US has sent several signals to ASEAN members in order to see if they are unified. China and Russia support ASEAN unity, but the US is seeking for ways to weaken and fracture the organization, and wants to create anti-China and pro-US allies in Southeast Asia. Yet, it is impossible to assume that under Blinken’s persuasion, Indonesia and Malaysia will adopt a strong anti-China attitude. ASEAN cannot be divided by the United States.

Whatever the tone of Washington’s diplomatic language, the goal of deepening engagement with Southeast Asia is for regional governments to equip themselves at their own expense and join its anti-China “regiment.” To put it bluntly, it aims to bolster its own strategic weakness by utilizing other people’s capital, resources, and space.

Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the prestigious School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, China. His academic journey was propelled by the esteemed Chinese MOFCOM Scholarship, leading him to successfully attain a Master of Law in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University, China. With a rich background, Raihan has also contributed as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Politics and Security at the Center for Indonesia-China Studies (CICS). Currently, he plays a pivotal role as a member of the International Relations Commission within the Directorate of Research and Studies for the Overseas Indonesian Students' Association Alliance (OISAA) for the term 2022/2023.