The Good and the Bad for Biden in Southeast Asia


(Foreign Policy)

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2023, photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2023

Photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

by Derek Grossman

February 8, 2024

Since entering office in 2021, one of the Biden administration's foreign-policy priorities has been a more effective Indo-Pacific strategy to compete with China, especially in Southeast Asia. Three years later, the administration has only partially fulfilled this goal. Although Washington has strengthened several key bilateral partnerships, it has also neglected others. Critically, given China's massive trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia, the administration still lacks an overall economic plan for the region.

The bright spots for the Biden administration are considerable. In February 2022, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally—and announced an expansion of the number of Philippine military bases covered by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries. First signed in 2014, the expanded agreement now allows the U.S. military to pre-deploy equipment, build infrastructure, and temporarily operate on nine bases in the Philippines, up from five in 2022.

U.S. access to these bases not only unlocks potential military advantages vis-à-vis Beijing in disputed areas of the South China Sea, but could also support U.S. military intervention in a conflict over Taiwan. Three of the new bases are located on the northern island of Luzon, which sits just 160 miles off Taiwan's southern coast. While Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has publicly cautioned against allowing U.S. military access for offensive operations, he has also said it would be hard to imagine his country remaining on the sidelines of any future war in the Taiwan Strait.

From a broader perspective, Manila's alignment with Washington—mostly the result of continued Chinese encroachments into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone at places such as Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal—has never been stronger.

In September 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Vietnam to formally elevate the U.S.-Vietnam partnership from “comprehensive” to “comprehensive strategic.” This is the highest category of partnership that Vietnam recognizes with foreign powers, on par with China in Hanoi's hierarchy. Although mostly symbolic, the deal was certainly historic. After all, the United States and communist Vietnam are former foes and did not normalize relations until 1995, approaching each other warily for much of the time since.

Although Washington has strengthened several key bilateral partnerships, it has also neglected others.

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Hanoi is trying to signal to Beijing that Vietnam has become increasingly apprehensive about China's actions and intentions. Hanoi is concerned over not only the South China Sea, where it maintains overlapping sovereignty claims with China, but also the Mekong River, where a series of Chinese dams upstream have created serious food and resource insecurities in Vietnam. Of course, Hanoi is also hedging: Chinese President Xi Jinping visited there in December 2023 and signed numerous important agreements as well. But it remains indisputable that U.S.-Vietnamese ties are in their best shape since the end of the Vietnam war.

Indonesia also received additional attention from the Biden administration in 2023. In November, the United States and Indonesia upgraded their partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” announced during Indonesian President Joko Widodo's visit to the White House. When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers in Jakarta in November, the two nations also signed a defense cooperation agreement. Although details have yet to be disclosed, it is clear that the United States and Indonesia are pursuing closer security cooperation on a variety of fronts, including in maritime domain awareness, that could be leveraged against China.

Meanwhile, Singapore quietly continues to provide the United States with basing access to the Changi Naval Base on the strategically critical Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans and is China's single most important commercial lifeline. Singapore also participates in various military exercises with U.S. and allied forces and supports Washington's minilateral security initiatives in the region, such as the Quad (made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), even if it has not formally joined them.

Outside of these four countries, however, the Biden administration's performance has been lackluster.

For example, after signing a communique in 2022 on “strategic alliance and partnership” with Thailand—the United States' only other formal Southeast Asian ally besides the Philippines—the Biden administration has been missing in action. Although National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited there last week and met with the new prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, the primary purpose of the trip was to engage with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi while the latter was in Bangkok. There was no observable progress on U.S.-Thai ties in 2023. Neither Srettha nor Biden attended the U.S.-ASEAN Summit or East Asia Summit.

More fundamentally, the United States and Thailand have diverged on how to handle China, with Washington viewing Beijing as a threat and Bangkok viewing it more favorably. The Biden administration also likely has some concerns over the troubled state of Thai democracy—although Srettha's claim to the prime ministership is stronger than that of his predecessor, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who became Thailand's leader through a military coup in 2014.

The Biden administration has also systematically ignored Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia, albeit for varying reasons. Brunei maintains longstanding strategic ties to the United States, but in recent years, Chinese influence there has grown, particularly through Belt and Road Initiative projects. Whereas the BRI is criticized in other Southeast Asian countries for saddling them with massive debt, Brunei tends to greatly appreciate these engagements, which challenge Washington's influence. It is possible the Biden administration is overlooking Brunei because of its small size and a false perception that the partnership is stronger than it actually is, which might unintentionally cede influence to Beijing.

On Cambodia and Laos, the Biden team apparently believes that engagement isn't a worthwhile venture since both countries are squarely in China's strategic orbit. But that is probably a mistake, as there are potential benefits to challenging Beijing in its own backyard that could have strategic implications for the wider Indo-Pacific.

Engagement with these nations could, for example, undermine the persistent narrative that the United States is only reacting and playing defense in the region in the face of China's all-but-inevitable rise. It could also reverse what already seems like a fait accompli: that China will dominate, even subjugate, the Southeast Asian mainland. Cooperating with Cambodia and Laos could also strengthen ties with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, not least because all four countries share concerns about China's dam building on the Mekong River, an economic lifeline for all four countries.

Although the Biden administration did engage Phnom Penh in 2021, it was only because the latter was about to hold the rotating chair of ASEAN, underscoring the transactional nature of Washington's approach. It is likely that Laos will receive similar treatment during its turn as ASEAN chair this year.

Malaysia has also received almost no attention from the Biden administration. Like with Thailand, some of this is because Kuala Lumpur is perennially focused inwardly, but some is also related to Malaysia's anxieties about getting caught up in U.S.-China competition. Malaysia, for example, has vocally opposed AUKUS, alleging that the security arrangement will result in an arms race and risk regional peace and stability. And since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Malaysia has condemned Israel and explicitly supported Hamas, further complicating U.S.-Malaysia ties.

Nevertheless, Washington might still be able to find ways to establish a working relationship with Kuala Lumpur, especially in the realm of maritime security. Last month, Japan showed that this was possible by signing a security assistance deal with Malaysia, including the delivery of rescue boats and supplies.

Finally, the Biden administration can hardly claim any measurable success on Southeast Asia's most pressing internal matter: the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. Since the military coup there in February 2021, Washington has imposed numerous sanctions against the country, most recently targeting its oil and gas sector. These sanctions have led the regime to deepen engagement with China. Myanmar, for example, is reportedly helping China to build a listening post off of its Greater Coco Island, which could have military ramifications for Indian operations at its Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Going forward, Washington should find a way to calibrate punishment of the regime with engagement. The Biden administration might let Myanmar's western and eastern neighbors—India and Thailand, respectively—take the lead on diplomacy. Both are friends of the United States and have already been negotiating with the regime. In the case of India, there are shared concerns over Chinese influence in Myanmar and throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Beyond restricting itself to only a few bilateral partnerships, the Biden administration has other self-imposed challenges in Southeast Asia. Unlike in 2022, when Biden made it a point of showing up at major ASEAN events—including his historic U.S.-ASEAN special summit at the White House and the annual ASEAN summit held in Cambodia that year—he clearly took a step back in 2023. By not hosting another U.S.-ASEAN special summit, he appeared to leave the multilateral in the lurch, and he sent Vice President Kamala Harris to the ASEAN summit in Indonesia in his stead.

Even if these events rarely produce significant outcomes, ASEAN leaders pay very close attention to the frequency and level of U.S. participation, and they use it as a gauge of U.S. interest in the region.

Most importantly, the Biden administration still lacks a viable economic strategy that might position Washington to credibly counter Beijing's growing trade and investment ties in this critical region. Since the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade agreement in 2017, the United States under Biden has not rejoined its successor group, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—an 11-member bloc that includes Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Making matters worse, the United States is on the outside looking in to the world's largest multilateral trade pact, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. RCEP is ASEAN-led and includes not only China, but also many U.S. friends, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

Going forward, the Biden administration or its successor must have a credible economic strategy in Southeast Asia.

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Instead, the Biden administration has proposed the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, pledging to cooperate with a number of countries on advancing sustainable, competitive, and fair economic growth. While it is impressive that seven ASEAN countries joined IPEF, it is simply an agreement to negotiate and not an agreement itself, making it the least ambitious of all these pacts. IPEF provides no additional trade access to the United States, which is what Southeast Asian countries want most from Washington.

Going forward, the Biden administration or its successor must have a credible economic strategy in Southeast Asia. Today, China—not the United States—is ASEAN's primary economic partner. These ties are the primary source of Chinese influence throughout the region. Washington should also seek to deepen and expand the U.S.-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership, inked in 2022. Last year, the two sides stated that they were in the process of implementing a plan of action up to 2025, but it is still unclear how the agreement will help shape the region in favor of the United States.

The verdict can only be that the United States has mostly adopted a policy of benign neglect in Southeast Asia, notwithstanding several strong alliances and partnerships in the region. But even if the United States played a more active role, it would probably make little difference in a hot conflict involving China, whether that conflict was over Taiwan or in the South China Sea. The reality is that most ASEAN members have a longstanding policy of maintaining neutrality between rival great powers. Only the Philippines seems to be drifting away from this position. For the rest, it is hard to envision how any amount of U.S. engagement might help.

But in a scenario short of war, the United States has more options to win the strategic competition against China by sidelining or nudging Beijing out of the region. But to do so, it will be critical for Washington to more proactively shape the region's dynamics not only in the security sphere, but also by much more active diplomatic and economic means.

Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, and a former daily intelligence briefer to the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on February 5, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.