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Can Biden Keep the Peace in Southeast Asia?

“America is back,” U.S. President Joe Biden has announced to the world—but in Southeast Asia, the United States is playing catch-up again. And it has much to recover. The last four years witnessed Washington’s dwindling diplomatic and political capital in the region.

The United States has no regional initiative of significance. It has excluded itself from two economic groupings: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump did attend a special Manila summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but missed out on all four meetings of the East Asia Summit during his term. U.S. embassies in four ASEAN countries (Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, and the Philippines) have been operating without ambassadors, and the United States is the only major country that does not have a permanent representative to the ASEAN Secretariat. In the Philippines and Indonesia, getting too close to Trump was seen as a political liability—which explains why Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, never visited Trump at the White House. U.S. support for the region during the COVID-19 crisis has been modest at best.

The Biden administration is now undertaking steps to reverse course, repair the damage, and restore U.S. credibility. His first step in foreign policy, Biden has said, is to win back allies and partners while pushing back adversaries. Policies are being recalibrated across the board.

ASEAN countries would certainly welcome a robust U.S. engagement in the region—but in the right way.

No Southeast Asian country particularly minds China’s political system, mainly due to the principle of noninterference but also because they simply have no interest in China’s domestic politics.

First, they do not want to see a heightened U.S.-China rivalry in Southeast Asia, a region that has been a cockpit of conflict between major powers in the past and could well become that again. ASEAN countries do not want to be polarized, pulled in different directions by different powers, and see the cohesion of the ASEAN community undermined. ASEAN countries are hoping that the Biden administration will lower the temperature, tone, and tension of U.S.-China relations and keep the rivalry manageable.

Second, it is in the national interests of ASEAN countries to maintain good relations with both the United States and China. They all want to extract benefits from both powers. They believe that Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific, has ample space for engagement for both superpowers. As such, ASEAN countries would not like to see a repeat of the aggressive anti-China rants that former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uttered in his final months in office.

Indeed, Southeast Asia’s perspective on China is different from that of the United States. While ASEAN members remain rightly anxious about China’s moves in the South China Sea, they have also recognized that China will be a big part of their future—bilaterally and regionally. Of course, they have no illusions about their relationships with China, which will be complex and challenging. Still, while the bipartisan view in Washington sees China as a threat to the United States’ long-standing supremacy, Southeast Asians generally accept China as an important partner for their development plans.

Southeast Asians hear the alarm sounded by the Biden administration on the danger democracy is facing from autocracy, explicitly referring to China. Yet the reality on the ground is that no Southeast Asian country particularly minds China’s political system, mainly due to the principle of noninterference but also because they simply have no interest in China’s domestic politics.

Not a single ASEAN country has echoed the U.S. State Department’s claim that China is committing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Not one Southeast Asian country—not even Indonesia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population—considers China an ideological foe.

In fact, ASEAN’s leaders would sympathize with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that every country has a right to choose its own path of development, because this is being practiced in ASEAN itself.

Third, Southeast Asian countries do not want to see the erosion of ASEAN centrality—the principle that ASEAN, which unites an increasingly cohesive group of nations, should take charge of affairs in the region. ASEAN centrality presumes that the major powers have a strategic trust in ASEAN and are willing to let the organization lead on some aspects of regional affairs. ASEAN’s credibility depends on its ability to maintain good relations with all the major powers: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, the European Union, and India. This is why ASEAN does not want to choose sides and does not want to be pressured to do so. Choosing one side will automatically mean alienating the other. Doing so will reposition ASEAN away from the center of complex relationships.

The ASEAN countries noticed with curiosity that Biden’s first foreign-policy move in Asia was to convene the Quadrilateral meeting of the United States, Australia, Japan, and India—and elevate it to a leader-level summit. While the Quad leaders strongly endorsed ASEAN centrality, questions are being asked within ASEAN regarding the Quad’s strategic objective and whether it will undertake measures that may be incompatible with ASEAN’s goals. To date, the relationship between ASEAN and the Quad remains fluid, unclear, and uncertain.

The Quad also inevitably invites questions whether Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be any different from Trump’s. Beijing was not entirely wrong to suspect that the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy contained an anti-China bias.

Can either side overcome its strategic ego and start exploring avenues for cooperation?

The Biden administration should convincingly demonstrate that its Indo-Pacific vision—indeed its strategy for Asia—is not intended to marginalize, let alone contain, any resident power. It is a good sign that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has increasingly used the phrase “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific”—“inclusive” is a code word in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for keeping the door open for China to come in.

Finally, Southeast Asians want to see the United States and China cooperate in their region. A few years ago, Xi called for a “new type of great-power relationship” with the United States based on “win-win solutions.” Biden has confirmed that his administration wants “competition, not conflict” with China and is “ready to work with Beijing when it is in America’s interest to do so.” Blinken also said the U.S.-China relationship will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be.”

Given these encouraging words, can either side overcome its strategic ego and start exploring avenues for cooperation? Can Southeast Asia be the place where some form of concrete U.S.-China cooperation takes place? This is, after all, a region that has seen a long list of seemingly intractable conflicts turn into lasting cooperation: between Indonesia and Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia and Timor-Leste, Malaysia and the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia—the list goes on. Countries in this region have demonstrated that enmity can be turned to amity.

There is no shortage of issues for Washington and Beijing to explore cooperation on: industry, infrastructure, maritime security, piracy, climate, environment, green energy, natural disasters, COVID-19, youth exchanges, and so on. While this will not change their rivalry on a global scale, it might just change the texture of U.S.-China relations in Southeast Asia. That would be good enough for ASEAN. It really comes down to whether there is political will and diplomatic guile to do so.

This essay is published in cooperation with the Asian Peace Programme at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.