This handout photo taken and released on June 1, 2021, by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh shows Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greeting US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman during a meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP / Handout / US Embassy Phnom Penh

The June 7-8 meetings between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his ASEAN counterparts – both as a group and bilaterally – in Chongqing was just the latest advance by China in its burgeoning contest with the US for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia.

Despite some recent self-inflicted setbacks, overall China seems to be gaining ground. Indeed, at the meetings, the ministers reiterated their intention “to avoid activities that could escalate tension in the contested South China Sea” and Wang called for an upgrading of ASEAN-China relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

The US has much diplomatic ground to make up and it is likely to step up its efforts in the coming months. But will it be enough to make a difference?

The US has dominated Southeast Asia since the end of World War II with both hard and soft power – the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. While its hard power is still dominant and even growing, its soft power has declined both absolutely and relative to that of China.

In this contest, China has the geographic advantage. It is Southeast Asia’s permanent giant next-door neighbor. It also has a large diaspora of ethnic Chinese that comprises significant minorities in many Southeast Asian countries, and many of Southeast Asia’s political, economic and military leaders have some Chinese blood. But this can be a political liability when tensions flare between this minority and the majority indigenous peoples.

The US cannot match China’s economic prowess and largesse and hopes that its political, social and economic systems and – more importantly – its values will be sufficient to keep much of Asia in its camp. But this is increasingly proving to be a false hope. So the US is falling back on its tried and true advantage – dominant military power and the threat of its use.

But even in this sphere China is making rapid advances, and the prospect of its eventual military superiority in the region is looming.

This increased militarization of the issues puts off Southeast Asian countries that will suffer if the two engage in conflict. Moreover, militarism is not the hallmark of a great and successful nation whose values and achievements should speak for themselves.

Many in Southeast Asia had hoped that under President Joe Biden, the US would step up its diplomacy and moderate its military goals and behavior vis-à-vis China, especially where they confront each other in the South and East China Seas.

That hope had some basis, because Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan have publicly advocated “competitive co-existence” with China. Moreover, China seemed to be open to a reset in relations.

But US-China policy has so far not only continued that of former president Donald Trump but even trumped its hypocrisy, condescension, confrontation and militarism. Indeed, US diplomacy has lagged far behind its military signaling.

At the end of May, the US finally sent Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to visit the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ de facto leader Indonesia, erstwhile US ally Thailand and China-leaning Cambodia. But the trip was unremarkable other than its skipping and probably miffing key states like the Philippines and Vietnam.

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s scheduled follow-up virtual conference with his ASEAN counterparts was an embarrassing – even maddening – non-event because of technical difficulties. President Biden did call Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, but that was mainly to try to save the self-serving defense alliance.

More important, the US has made clear by its actions that its immediate priorities lie elsewhere – the Middle East, by necessity to quell a crisis; Russia, because of its increasingly aggressive actions; and Europe, by choice.

Even in Asia, its main interest seems to be shoring up its alliances with Japan and South Korea as a bulwark against China.

Worse, it appears to ASEAN countries that Washington prefers to bolster the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and the US) as its regional lever on security policy. This is an affront to ASEAN’s aspirations of “centrality” in regional security affairs, because the Quad, if effective, will become central to security management, particularly vis-à-vis China.

While the US gives lip service to ASEAN’s aspirations, it seems frustrated with its members’ turn away from democratic values and ineffectiveness in managing regional affairs, such as the crisis in Myanmar.

Meanwhile China has been making diplomatic advances. President Xi Jinping has communicated with some of his Southeast Asian counterparts, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has traveled through the region and met personally with his counterparts. The foreign ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines also visited China for bilateral talks in late March.

China has made inroads with its “win-win” Belt and Road Initiative, despite US warnings of debt traps, environmental damage and coercion. Its Covid diplomacy – donating vaccines and even partnering with Indonesia to produce more – has also been far superior to that of the US, which – by necessity – has been focused on getting its own house in order. It has only just now started to catch up in Covid diplomacy, and Southeast Asia will be only a small part of its global effort.

China’s relationship with Indonesia is perhaps the most important for it in the region. Recent tension between them over intrusions by Chinese fishing and Coast Guard vessels into the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has given way to warming ties. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has referred to China as a “good friend and brother.”

On June 5, China and Indonesia initiated an “inaugural high-level dialogue.” Usually very sensitive about its maritime security, Indonesia accepted China’s offer to try to salvage its lost submarine in the strategic Lombok Strait.

It has also undertaken naval exercises with China off Jakarta. This is remarkable because allowing US naval vessels to pass by its capital city has been a sticking point in negotiations over delineating a sea lane in the Java Sea.

This does not mean that Indonesia is about to move away from its non-aligned status, and there are still many things that could go wrong with the relationship – such as more incursions or incidents in its EEZ or China’s treatment of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang. But it does mean the China-Indonesia relationship is rapidly improving.

To a great extent, the US-China soft-power contest is between US values and its provision of security versus China’s economic clout – and China seems to be winning.

The US has made human rights and democratic values its stock-in-trade and a dominant part of its foreign policy in Asia. Indeed, that is what distinguishes the US from many other countries – especially China.

This may be good for humanity, but in a realpolitik world it puts the US at a disadvantage with Southeast Asian governments that are struggling to maintain their hold on power, which will always be their top priority. Indeed, in a realpolitik world, “nice” nations often finish second.

Moreover, US values are losing their appeal. There are clearly weaknesses in the US system of governance.

Under counterattack by China’s foreign-policy czar, Yang Jiechi, in their Anchorage meeting, Blinken acknowledged faults in the US system of governance but claimed that after every crisis “we’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.” This was whistling by the US graveyard of civil discourse, accepted norms and unity that was American democracy.

Such fantasies cannot hide the ugly, violence-prone, cultural civil war that has made American democracy dysfunctional.

To be sure, China’s domestic values offer an unattractive alternative. But frankly, most ASEAN countries do not care how China treats its own citizens – and some are just as authoritarian and draconian and resent US criticism of their governing style. Playing to this reality, Wang has said, ”We support ASEAN in upholding the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.”

Remarkably, the US has failed to take full advantage of China’s diplomatic “own goals” – its incursions into Indonesia’s EEZ, its massing of fishing boats in the Philippines’ EEZ, and its maritime provocations of Malaysia and Vietnam in their claimed waters.

To regain and retain its moral leadership, the US needs to demonstrate that its values and system of government are the best of all for all and that it can and will maintain a competitive edge with China economically and technologically, not just militarily.

The US has much diplomatic ground to make up, and I expect it to try to do so over the next few months. The ASEAN Regional Forum in August and the East Asian Summit in November provide good opportunities. But it may be too little , too late and too self-serving to matter. At this point it will take a Hail Mary – perhaps a tour of the region by Biden himself – to get Washington back in the game.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.