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Restoring relationships with friends and allies damaged by Donald Trump has been a foreign policy priority for U.S. President Joe Biden. He has been largely successful in doing so through the “Quad” and the Group of Seven frameworks aimed at meeting the challenges posed by China.

However there was one important group of countries that the White House seemed to overlook in the early months of his presidency — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the first six months of his administration, Biden spoke with over 40 leaders of the world by phone, but he had not done so with a single ASEAN leader.

Fortunately, things have changed for the better recently, with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visiting Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in June, followed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s travels to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines last month. Vice President Kamala Harris also traveled to Vietnam and Singapore for talks in August.

Finally, it seems, Washington is paying due attention to ASEAN, which was largely ignored by the Trump administration. In doing so, it would be wise to spend much more political capital on the region together with Japan, the largest investor in ASEAN countries.

There are several reasons why.

First, ASEAN is of tremendous strategic importance to the U.S. and Japan because of its geographical and economic characteristics. Geographically, the ASEAN countries are literally situated at the center of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., the four pillars of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. Moreover, several key ASEAN states share borders with China both on land and at sea.

Economically, while the group’s 10 member countries are mostly small, ASEAN collectively has the fourth largest economy in the world, behind the U.S., China and Japan. Furthermore, economically, it has been growing faster than any other region except for the nation of China. The collective ASEAN economy is expected to continue to grow, reaching in the not-too-distant future a population of 700 million people who are eager to work and consume.

Second, ASEAN geographically sits in the main theater of competition with China. Neglecting Southeast Asia’s geographic importance would compromise Washington and Tokyo’s ability to deal with the China challenge. Geographically, China is hemmed in to its east by Japan and South Korea, to its southeast by Taiwan, to its west by India and to its north by Mongolia and Russia. ASEAN, which is much less hostile, provides China a vital opening to its south.

Continental ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar potentially provide critical access to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Meanwhile, maritime ASEAN countries, particularly, the Philippines, hold the key to China’s control of the South China Sea, which Beijing defines as a “core interest.”

Economically, ASEAN provides China both manufacturing bases with less expensive labor costs and consumer markets that are expected to continue growing. Additionally, ASEAN presents China with economic pathways for the importation of natural resources and raw materials as well as the exporting of finished goods. Furthermore, ASEAN willingly gives China opportunities for its massive infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative.

Third, the U.S. is lagging behind China in terms of power and influence in the region. It is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner and second largest investor. China also builds many infrastructure projects in ASEAN countries that are closely connected with its own strategic interests. As China’s economic relationship with ASEAN countries deepens, Chinese workers pour into those nations.

As a result, ASEAN nations accept China’s presence and influence within their borders as a reality that they have to live with. A case in point is Cambodia. China’s influence over Cambodia’s leaders is so strong that it is deemed essentially a client state.

Still, despite the fact that China has a huge presence within ASEAN member countries, the U.S. and Japan still have an opportunity to achieve a strategic balance in the region because, generally speaking, those nations are wary of becoming totally dependent on Beijing.

In addition, ASEAN has not totally tilted toward China. The group is wary of the Asian giant’s heavy-handedness, bellicosity, hegemonic ambitions, human rights violations, corruption and environmental indifference.

While it is true that there is still a window of opportunity for the U.S., Washington must be nuanced in approaching ASEAN to prevent the group from slipping into Beijing’s orbit.

That’s because the world views of ASEAN member states are pragmatic and less ideological. In the end, like it or not, they recognize that China is too close and too powerful to openly turn against. Furthermore, they know that China is too prosperous to be left unengaged.

As a matter of fact, Southeast Asian countries have managed their complex relations with China for centuries with those realities in mind. There has been no clear battle line with China in the region. ASEAN has no intention to change that reality anytime soon. It is safe to say the group prefers even flawed stability with a heavy Chinese presence over a devastating conflict.

Moreover, from this viewpoint, even if ASEAN welcomes an American presence as a counterweight against China, it is important to understand the U.S.-Japan security alliance, which has adopted an increasingly anti-China tone, makes the association uncomfortable and even concerned.

If the U.S.-Japan alliance essentially becomes an “anti-China alliance,” ASEAN will view it as an unwelcome destabilizing force in the region. After all, the ASEAN states still remember the terrible consequences of the great power rivalry in Indo-China at the height of the Cold War.

Biden must tread carefully in this respect. Trump was regarded as having an anti-China stance. But his hard-line policies related to China were mainly focused on trade. His approach to China was undisciplined and unsystematic, while Biden is seen to be a more conventional leader in general. The new U.S. president’s stance against China is more fundamental and crystallized than Trump’s.

Because Biden defines competition with China as a binary choice of “our model of democracy versus their model of autocracy,” it poses a danger from the viewpoint of the ASEAN countries as it will force them to do what they prefer not to do — to be forced into choosing between the U.S. and China.

Considering such circumstances, Japan should take a leadership role in the U.S.-Japan alliance to engage ASEAN.

Japan has more leverage than the U.S. in the ASEAN region. Economically, Japan is ASEAN’s largest business partner. It has invested in business activities and human resources in the region in a much less pushy way than China. Diplomatically, Tokyo has been amenable to the “ASEAN way,” which sees cooperation being based on nonintervention and that a unanimous consensus is needed in making decisions. While the ASEAN way may often be indecisive and ineffective, it is the wisdom used to keep the extremely diverse group of Southeast Asian nations together.

Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, who have been making recommendations to the U.S.-Japan alliance, declared in December 2020: “Japan has become not just an essential and more equal ally but also an idea innovator.”

One concrete example in which Japan played such a role was the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Following the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral negotiations on the earlier Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Tokyo demonstrated its leadership by leading the negotiations to make the strategic CPTPP trade agreement a reality.

Japan can engage ASEAN in the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision without pushing the idea of “free and open” too hard to the member states. The U.S.-Japan alliance will win more friends in ASEAN if it does not pose a threat to stability in the region and the fragile unity of the group itself. The U.S. must be patient because achieving and maintaining strategic balance in the region is a continuous process of effectively engaging ASEAN rather than winning it over outright by trying to prove the idea that “our model is better than theirs.”

Satohiro Akimoto is chairman and president of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

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