Catharin Dalpino is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. For the past eight years she has co-chaired the monthly Southeast Asia Roundtable, sponsored by The Asia Foundation. Dalpino also served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State. She has published several books on US policy in Asia, as well as numerous articles and op-eds, and has testified frequently before Congress on US relations with Southeast Asia and is a frequent commentator for major news outlets on Southeast Asia.
Articles by Catharin Dalpino
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.
The resurgent COVID-19 pandemic and US elections constrained the conduct of US relations with Southeast Asia and of regional affairs more broadly in the final months of 2020. Major conclaves were again “virtual,” including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit. and the APEC meeting. Over the year, ASEAN lost considerable momentum because of the pandemic, but managed to oversee completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November. Some modest gains in US-Southeast Asian relations were realized, most notably extension of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) for another six months, an opportunity for Manila and the new administration in Washington to put the VFA—and the US-Philippines alliance more broadly—on firmer ground. Another significant step, albeit a more controversial one, was the under-the-radar visit to Washington of Indonesian Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, in October.
As Southeast Asia struggles to gain traction in the COVID-19 pandemic and address the economic damage it has imposed, leaders are hobbled by travel restrictions and other conditions that make forging a regional approach to the virus more difficult. Although most states have launched partial and cautious reopening strategies, most intergovernmental business is still conducted online. This will remain the case for the rest of 2020, given widespread fears of a second surge of the coronavirus. In the meantime, several leaders face political challenges as their domestic populations struggle under the worst recession in years. Diplomatic traffic is ordinarily busy in the summer in Southeast Asia, but this year the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore was cancelled, the ASEAN Summit forced to go online, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) pushed into the early fall, also to be conducted by video. Security tensions were not held in abeyance by COVID, and may have been exacerbated by it. China’s attempts to disrupt oil and gas explorations of the Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea evoked an unusually strong statement from Washington in mid-July; the reactions of the Southeast Asian claimants, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, were a litmus test in part of their confidence in the US to ameliorate the situation. A security crisis of a different sort continued as the Mekong River entered its second year of drought, raising concerns about upstream dams controlled by China.
Many Southeast Asian countries’ growth rates have been stripped to near zero by COVID-19, and leaders expect a crisis that could exceed that of the Asian Financial Crisis. The pandemic defined Southeast Asia’s diplomatic relations from March, with high-level meetings moved to video conferences. The US-ASEAN summit, scheduled for March 24, was postponed but no new date has been announced. With US elections ramping up and questions about the COVID-19 pandemic outstanding, a 2020 US-ASEAN summit appears unlikely.
Stung by a US delegation to the East Asia Summit of lower rank than previous years, ASEAN leaders retaliated by presenting National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien with a partial boycott of the adjacent US-ASEAN Summit. The Trump administration brushed off the incident with a State Department fact sheet that began, “US engagement with the ten member states of ASEAN has never been stronger.”
Two regional meetings in Southeast Asia over the summer – the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok – revealed growing angst among Southeast Asian leaders over narrowing political space in which to balance relations in the context of US-China competition. More broadly, the relevance of ASEAN in these polarizing times has come into question and subregional arrangements, such as the Ayeyawady-Chaopraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) are emerging. Recent incidents point to growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. A reported agreement with Cambodia to build a strategic outpost on the Gulf of Thailand has drawn sharp criticism from Washington. But it is unclear how able or willing Southeast Asian governments are to push back since they view China as a critical economic partner. As several Southeast Asian leaders contemplate retirement, economic security is a common element in the legacies they envision.
The choice of two Southeast Asian countries to host US-North Korea summits in the past year has lent some credence to claims that the region serves as the foundation for regional dialogue and cooperation. In early 2019, the region was also the recipient of extra attention when foreign investment in China began to move south, driven by US tariffs on China imposed in late 2018. However, there was little sign that new bilateral trade agreements with the US will materialize in the near term. Meanwhile, greater security cooperation with the US is more likely with the bombing of a cathedral in the southern Philippines in January serving as another harbinger of increased ISIS activity in the region and continued militarization of the South China Sea strengthening the rationale for the US-Philippines alliance but also putting more pressure on it. In political developments, Thai elections in March left questions about whether the military will remain dominant while Indonesian elections in April were less controversial, with incumbent President Joko Widodo retaining power.
At the mid-point in the tenure of President Donald Trump, Southeast Asian leaders have largely accepted that the era of special attention to the region, which began in the second term of George W. Bush and continued through the Obama administration, has largely passed, if only temporarily. To be sure, Southeast Asia is included in the Indo-Pacific framework and will figure to some extent in Washington’s plans to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which will be partially implemented through the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act. The region continues to hold up one side of the conflict with China over sovereignty and island-building in the South China Sea and so can be assured of continued attention from the US Indo-Pacific Command. Apart from these broad issues and initiatives, US-Southeast Asian dynamics have returned to a status quo ante of the 1990s, when Washington was focused on geopolitical shifts in other regions, and relations with Southeast Asian nations were bilateral and spiky.
Southeast Asian governments have warmed to the Indo-Pacific concept being promoted by the US, which reinforces their own inclination to expand the cast of regional powers to balance China’s rise. However, they are still wary that a disorganized Trump administration will not be able to translate its rhetoric into policies. In the meantime, they fear being caught between Washington and its Northeast Asian adversaries. Apart from possible clashes between regional powers, Southeast Asia itself offers a number of challenges to smooth relations with the US. Recent elections in Malaysia and Cambodia are two of them, albeit for different reasons. In Indonesia, candidates have been declared for the 2019 presidential elections that could feed growing religious nationalism and anti-Americanism. The Rohingya refugee crisis has ratcheted up tensions between the West and Myanmar over the impact of the 2017 crackdown.
The difficulties of the Trump administration in forging a coherent foreign policy were on display in US relations with Southeast Asia in the early months of 2018. The Department of Defense played an outsized role as both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford made visits to the region. The customary menu of multilateral and bilateral exercises with Southeast Asian militaries, including the 37th round of the annual Cobra Gold exercises, reassured security partners of continued defense cooperation. However, piecemeal diplomatic activity by the US underscored perceptions that the Trump administration has downplayed the region’s significance, exacerbated by heightened rhetoric about the still-undefined “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Rohingya refugee crisis continued to be of mutual concern, but were overshadowed by the emerging dialogue on the Korean Peninsula and growing trade tensions between China and the US, leaving Southeast Asian governments in a reactive mode.
Two political surprises in 2016 will affect Japan’s relations with Southeast Asia. The first, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and his subsequent turn toward China, has likely not disturbed Japan’s role as the Philippines’ largest investor, trading partner, and aid donor. However, Duterte’s abrasiveness toward Washington could have a negative effect on the newly-forged Japan-Philippines security partnership and dampen the possibility of triangulating US, Japan, and Philippine cooperation in the South China Sea. A greater and more long-term impact could be the election of Donald Trump and the resulting uncertainty in US relations with Southeast Asia. Beyond that broad concern, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) throws the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific region into question and could stymie the growth Japan had expected in trade relations with TPP members in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. In January 2017, just days before Trump’s inauguration, Prime Minister Abe embarked on a swing through Southeast Asia to make “strategic adjustments” in Japanese relations with the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Two objectives drive Japan’s increasing engagement with Southeast Asia: stimulating Japanese economic growth through investment in large-scale infrastructure abroad, and supporting regional maritime domain awareness. While Tokyo officially denies any suggestion of rivaling or checking China with these policies, the timing and nature of Japan’s “pivot” to Southeast Asia would suggest otherwise. The number of “first-ever” Japanese defense initiatives with Southeast Asian countries in the past year, correspond to rising concern in the region over China’s moves in the South China Sea. New developments in regional security relations reflect a revision of Japanese defense guidelines and of the US-Japanese alliance, both of which emphasize greater interaction with regional partners. On the economic side, Japan and China are in direct competition for infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar. This will likely be the case for the next several years as ASEAN seeks to undergird the ASEAN Economic Community with new transportation grids.
In the early months of 2015 Tokyo has stepped up its engagement with Southeast Asia. Increasingly concerned with tensions in the South China Sea and the potential for their spillover, Japan has worked with Vietnam and the Philippines to strengthen coast guard and naval capacity. A new defense agreement with Indonesia, and the establishment of a high-level dialogue on maritime security, underscores a broader worry about China. To counter China’s economic reach and political influence in the poor states of mainland Southeast Asia, Tokyo has stepped up with a variety of initiatives, including a strategic partnership with Laos. Although polls indicate very positive views of Japan in Southeast Asia, Tokyo must nevertheless implement new policy initiatives in the region with care, in view of Japan’s own complicated relations with China and a more positive, but no less complicated, relationship with the US.
The US raised its profile in Southeast Asia with a series of high-profile visits and events in early 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Indonesia, delivering a speech on climate change, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosted a US-ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Hawaii. President Obama visited Malaysia and the Philippines, stops he had cancelled last fall because of the US government shutdown. The trip shored up the administration’s assertion that the US “rebalancing” to Asia is real and that Southeast Asia is critical to that process. However, the heavy emphasis on defense in Obama’s Philippines visit also reinforced Southeast Asian perceptions that the “pivot” is primarily a security policy. Broad movement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership was held hostage to disagreements between the United States and Japan. Relations between Washington and Nay Pyi Taw are slowing over continued violence in Rakhine State.
Asia-Pacific regionalism has been spurred by increasing economic integration but pulled apart by territorial tensions. These two trends have proceeded on separate paths with only occasional intersection. However, security dynamics are likely to increasingly influence regionalism as China rises and the US attempts to “pivot” more of its foreign policy to Asia. ASEAN continues to serve as a base for regional organizations, but in 2012 questions were raised about whether that center could hold. ASEAN’s goal to complete the blueprint for the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2015 puts additional pressure on the group. On a broader regional plane, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has expanded in recent months with the addition of Japan, Mexico, and Canada. Meanwhile, the launch of negotiations for the ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in late 2012 raises fears of a bifurcated landscape for the Asia-Pacific region into US and Chinese economic “spheres of influence.”
US attention was focused on both ends of Southeast Asia: in the east on tensions in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines, which have energized the US-Philippine alliance; and in the west on the impact of April by-elections in Burma, which have paved the way for a quantum leap in US engagement with the country. Attacks and explosions in Thailand and the Philippines were a reminder that terrorism is still a serious threat. Policy debate over the US “pivot” to Asia was stimulated by a US request to double the number of littoral combat ships to be docked at Singapore as well as by discussion on the rotation of US troops through Philippine bases. Both represent modest steps toward “flexible bases” in Southeast Asia. The unprecedented number of US joint exercises and other forms of military cooperation anticipated in 2012 suggest the “pivot” is an ongoing and incremental process that has been underway for years.
After banner initiatives in US policy toward Southeast Asia were unveiled in 2009 – the US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting, signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and a 45-degree change in Burma policy that added engagement to sanctions – a loss of momentum in early 2010 was hardly surprising. President Obama’s decision to delay his long-awaited trip to Indonesia twice in March added to the impression of a slump in relations with the region. The administration proved to be prescient in its warning last fall that greater engagement with the Burmese regime would not likely reap short-term gains when the junta announced restrictive election laws. However, in the first quarter of 2010 the US also moved forward on two regional initiatives – strengthening its interest in the TransPacific Trade Partnership, which could be a route to trade liberalization with several Southeast Asian countries, and preparing to establish a Permanent Mission to ASEAN. Despite Bangkok’s ongoing political crisis and a new wave of “red shirt” protests, the US and Thailand implemented new rounds of two multilateral military exercises in this quarter, including the flagship Cobra Gold. At the end of the quarter the US and Vietnam signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding on the development of civilian nuclear power facilities, a bilateral segue to the multilateral nuclear summit that Obama will host with 43 heads of state in mid-April.
On a bilateral level, U.S. relations with Southeast Asia held steady in the face of complicated political transitions in Thailand and Malaysia. Incremental gains were seen in security ties with U.S. allies and partners in the region – Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – while two issues remaining from the Vietnam War era complicated relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. Although the U.S. is no closer to signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, three new initiatives with ASEAN were put onto the table in early 2008, suggesting an alternative path to a stronger regional role for the U.S. However, Burma’s deteriorating situation casts a long shadow over U.S. bilateral and regional relations with Southeast Asia. The regime’s determination to go forward with a constitutional referendum in May is creating new fissures within the region and will make it more difficult for Washington to pursue comprehensive plans of any kind to strengthen relations with ASEAN.
Determined to reverse impressions that the United States is out of sync with regional dynamics, the State Department floated the idea of a formal U.S.-ASEAN Summit and speculated publicly on a possible U.S. role in the next East Asia Summit. Condoleezza Rice made her first visit to Jakarta as secretary of state, while U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman launched negotiations with Malaysia on a free trade agreement in Washington. Southeast Asia’s two oldest democracies, Thailand and the Philippines, spent much of the quarter in political turmoil. Protests in Thailand put U.S.-Thai Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks on ice, but the Balikatan 2006 exercises went forward in the Philippines as planned, despite a declaration of national emergency. As the U.S. and Vietnam moved closer to agreement on Hanoi’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the focus began shifting to Congress and the debate on Permanent Normal Trade Relations. In Cambodia, the return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy – and hints that Rainsy could join the government coalition – led Washington to contemplate shifts in U.S. policy.
As the new State Department team settled in, the U.S. attempted to maintain the heightened momentum in relations with Southeast Asia created by the tsunami relief effort earlier this year. In May, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick travelled to Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, using the trip to proclaim a new policy of greater attention to the region. President George Bush hosted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in May and Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in June, inaugural visit to Washington for both leaders. Also in June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended the Shangri-La security meeting in Singapore and used the spotlight to criticize Beijing’s presumed expansionist aims. Rumsfeld’s choice of Singapore as a venue for the remarks, combined with Zoellick’s listening tour, signaled growing interest in Washington in China’s increasing influence in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia was of two minds about the U.S. A recent Pew survey reported improvement of the U.S. image there because of tsunami aid, but demonstrations in Jakarta over the Newsweek story on Islamic prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay showed fresh resentment. U.S. military cooperation moved incrementally toward a more regional approach, while several rounds of bilateral trade talks were held. Human rights remained central to U.S. policy in Burma as Washington prepared to renew sanctions and made clear its opposition to Rangoon’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2006.