With Joe Biden being one of the key architects of the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot”, an increasing focus on Asia – especially, Southeast Asia – was/is inevitable. However, it is not just Biden’s obsession with the region that explains the on-going shift. America’s drastic failure in the Middle East despite decades of military presence plus the increasing presence and role of Russia and China in the region have combined with China’s rise as a global power to make it necessary for the US to recalibrate its global military presence, shifting from an overwhelming focus on the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Two processes, in this behalf, stand out: Washington has been withdrawing military hardware and personnel from the Middle East, including Afghanistan, and senior officials of the Biden administration have seriously renewed their efforts to re-establish and re-define the US ties with Southeast Asian countries, including the regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While the US is still to relocate a large part of its military from the Middle East to the ASEAN region, its revamped diplomatic ties are only a prelude to eventual militarisation, although it remains to be seen if, and the extent to which, it can actually succeed in achieving these objectives.
As part of relocation and re-prioritising its interests, the US recently removed a total of eight Patriot anti-missile systems from Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, along with the removal of an anti-rocket system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense from the kingdom. Besides it, Saudi Arabia also stands to lose some jet fighter squadrons, and likely to be subjected to the withdrawal of some 700 soldiers stationed in the kingdom.
While one may tend to argue that this re-location of military hardware is a result of the on-going “bad-phase” of US-Saudia ties, this is not entirely true. For one thing, the US is withdrawing not only from Saudia, but also from other countries. Secondly, this massive re-location is a manifestation of Biden’s February 2021 order to the Pentagon to “review the US military footprint” across the globe. While this review is yet to be completed, these changes (re-locations) indicate that a number of changes are yet to come that will almost certainly involve Southeast Asia. In fact, groundwork for such a relocation is already being done. A military re-location cannot happen without first repairing the damage done to the US ties with ASEAN during the Trump era. In this behalf, Biden’s secretaries of state and defence have been laying the path for quite some time.
More recently, on July 13, in his first ever meeting with the ASEAN members, Blinken stressed the “centrality” of the region in the US’ global game against China, and in reshaping the Indo-Pacific region’s security architecture. As the US state department said in its statement, “the Secretary underscored the United States’ rejection of the PRC’s unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea and reiterated that the United States stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC coercion. He pledged continued U.S. support for a free and open Mekong region under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership.”
However, to repair the damage done to the US ties, Blinken confirmed the US reliance on “vaccine diplomacy” to recast a positive image of the US in the region. As Blinken noted, out of the first batch of 25 million doses, 7 million are going to be for Asia, including the ASEAN members. Thailand, even though it is not part of COVAX programme, will receive 1.5 million doses of Pfizer. The US has also pledged US$ 96 million for ASEAN members to help buttress their capacity to fight the economic and financial impact of the pandemic.
Blinken’s ASEAN meet is to be followed, quite logically, by a visit of the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to what Washington calls “frontline states” against China i.e., the Philippines and Vietnam. A Pentagon official said that Austin will “underscore the enduring US commitment to the region, and our interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region and promoting ASEAN centrality.” As Austin tweeted, the purpose of this visit is to build “strong [defense and military] alliances & partnerships [which] are key to supporting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.”
This will then be followed by the much anticipated participation of Joe Biden himself in the ASEAN summit later this year. Joe Biden’s presence will reinforce the US commitment to the region, which was recently demonstrated when the US approved a sale of F-16 fighter jets as well as Sidewinder and Harpoon missiles to the Philippines in three separate deals with a combined value of more than US$2.5bn.
The US’ renewed commitment to boost the Philippines’ military capacity stems directly from the criticism Duterte has been levelling against the US for its inaction that led to the Philippines losing some territories to China in the South China Sea. By demonstrating its willingness to boost the Philippines’ military capacity, the US is sending a message to the entire ASEAN region i.e., the US’ institutional commitment to side with ASEAN against China.
However, while the US is most certainly in the middle of recalibrating its ties with ASEAN, the question is: can the US pull ASEAN completely away from China?
While there is a considerable appetite in ASEAN for re-developing ties with the US, there is no real desire for getting entangled in the US-China ‘Cold War 2.0.’ As Malaysia and some other Southeast Asia officials have repeatedly said, they prefer a mode of engagement that allows for a multilateral engagement without disturbing and upsetting China, a country ASEAN already has deep economic ties with.
China and ASEAN have already become each other’s largest trading partners. In 2020, ASEAN surpassed the EU, becoming China’s top trading partner. Despite the pandemic, China-ASEAN trade registered significant growth of about 6 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, reaching US$140 billion; hence, the question: can the US dismantle the existing economic interdependence that both China and ASEAN have carefully constructed through years of collaboration? It is unlikely for reasons that range from the ASEAN member’s consciousness of dangers associated with choosing sides in global conflict to the fact a return in the US of yet another Trump championing ‘America First’ can easily dislodge the commitments the Biden administration is making.
While the US may be willing to extend its diplomatic, economic and military support today, there is no gainsaying that China will respond likewise. For ASEAN, it will be challenging for now to avoid becoming a battel ground between two ‘Cold War 2.0’ rivals.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.