In his recent visit to Southeast Asia – the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore – the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, outlined what can be called the blueprint of US re-engagement with the region after a lull of few years. One thing that becomes strikingly clear is that the US needs China to survive in Southeast Asia. However, the US does not need China as a friend and supporter, but as an enemy that Washington can demonize to advertise its military usefulness to the region. In a first speech delivered to Fullerton Lecture Series in Singapore by a US Secretary of Defense in about 20 years, Austin targeted China to justify why the region needs the US and the US needs this region to fight its global competitor. Addressing the audience, Austin said, “I’ve come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends.” And, as Austin later on explained, the sole threat to the supposed ‘common security’ comes from Beijing. To quote him:
“Beijing’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea has no basis in international law. That assertion treads on the sovereignty of states in the region….. Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water. We’ve also seen aggression against India — destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan — and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.”
However, while Austin promised ASEAN protection from China, it remains that the region does not need this protection. Policy makers in Washington seem to have been driven by an assumption that the region is in dire need of the US help to get rid of China. This, however, is not really the case. For most countries in Southeast Asia, China is an inevitable partner, who they do not wish to antagonise unnecessarily. Even though there are territorial issues in the region, ASEAN has no appetite to confront Beijing militarily with the help of the US. While issues remain unresolved and there’s a need for resolution, for the concerned countries in Southeast Asia, their preferred means of achieving it are direct bi-lateral engagement with China (which China prefers), or recourse to legal arbitration (which it does not really mind). These options explain why no country in the ASEAN refers to China, even in their official publications and statements, as an enemy state.
It presents the US with a major dilemma i.e., the US is keen to extend military support to countries that are unlikely to use it against China. While there is no gainsaying that Southeast Asian countries want an economic engagement with the US, Washington’s options are further curtailed by the absence of a clear economic strategy. Austin, as could be expected, did not offer any credible, tangible and feasible vision of deeper economic engagement with the region. Instead, the main focus of his trip remained on reassuring the so-called US allies of Washington’s support against China, including through revitalising and even possibly expanding the QUAD. As Austin said, “As ASEAN plays its central role, we are also focusing on complementary mechanisms in the region. I know how pleased President Biden was to host the first Quad Leaders’ Summit in March. And structures like the Quad make the region’s security architecture even more durable.”
Lack of a program offering deeper economic engagement to the region is conspicuously absent. The US continues to fail to understand that the strongest pull of China in the region is not its supposed “authoritarianism” but its economic engagement, which is one crucial reason for why the ASEAN neither wants to confront China militarily, nor aims to rescind its economic ties with Beijing. While Washington’s ability to compete more effectively on the economic front was hurt by former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Biden administration has not announced, or even possibly conceived, a long-term and multilateral trade and economic connectivity regime. Instead, unlike China, the US also excused itself out of the world’s largest trade pact proposed by the Southeast Asia: the Regional Comprehensive Partnership.
Washington, obsessed as it is with military competition with roots in its Cold War mentality, is unable to offer a kind of geography of trade that China has already developed enough in the region. The US offers and reassurances, therefore, have little to no chance of successfully weaning the ASEAN away from China. For instance, ASEAN, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, became China’s largest trading partner in 2020, with the trade volume hitting $731.9 billion, a 7 percent growth year-on-year. In 2019, by contrast, the US exports to ASEAN stood merely at US$86.1 billion.
That regional countries prefer trade and economy over confrontation explains why regional leaders do not criticise China. For instance, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, during his recent State of the Nation address, called himself a “good friend of President Xi.” “When the pandemic struck, the first country I called for help was China,” Mr. Duterte said. He recalled how he had told Mr. Xi that the Philippines had no vaccines and was unable to develop one. Mr. Xi responded by immediately sending 1.5 million doses.
ASEAN countries, unlike policy makers in Washington, have been able to develop ties with Beijing that can accommodate differences and disputes without jeopardizing and destabilizing areas of cooperation. While Austin said that the US does not want ASEAN to choose between the US and China, this stance only proves the US doesn’t have any credible alternative to offer to the region to make them reconsider the extent and depth of their engagement with China. As Austin concluded: “We want to make sure we deter conflict in every case and every opportunity.” It means, the US itself does not see any potential opening available in the region to push ahead and penetrate the region economically. All it can do and is doing is to inflate the ‘China threat’ to sell its military resources to ASEAN to help its own military industrial complex.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.