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

Writing in Foreign Policy in late June, analyst James Crabtree took the position that US President Joe Biden’s administration, now six months into the job, still doesn’t know its mind in Southeast Asia. Worse, its “confused” policy risks “losing” Southeast Asia to China. 

Naturally, new administrations are compared with their predecessors.

Despite a major breakdown in talks between Washington and the ASEAN bloc in the last two years of Donald Trump’s administration, especially after his team snubbed the ASEAN Summit in 2019, it is often forgotten (or purposely overlooked) that Southeast Asian leaders were among the first to speak personally to Trump after his assumption of power in January 2017.

Vietnam’s prime minister at the time, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, spoke to Trump by phone even before he took office, while bilateral meetings or calls were held with almost every Southeast Asian leader in 2017. 

Furthermore, Trump’s administration was quick to sketch the outlines of its Southeast Asia policy.

He withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first full day in office, signaling a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism.

Officials were sent to Bangkok in February 2017 to restart joint-military exercises, which had been suspended by the Obama administration after treaty ally Thailand’s military coup in 2014.

Trump also quickly patched up relations with Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, another treaty ally, who had a frosty relationship at best with Barack Obama. 

Vice-president Mike Pence also visited the region in April 2017, less than four months into the administration. Indeed, within the first six months of Trump’s presidency the outlines of a policy were clear: focus on alliances over human rights; restore good relations with traditional treaty allies; realign two-way trade more in America’s favor; and present US-ASEAN relations as key to America’s “new Cold War” rivalry with China.

It is correct, then, to say that the Biden administration has been relatively slow to act and to show how, if at all, his Southeast Asia policy will differ from Trump’s. Although we must note that the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped, neither have other fundamental problems at home and abroad left by the Trump administration, not least its Middle East policy. 

That said, things have happened. Daniel Kritenbrink, a respected former US ambassador to Vietnam, has been nominated as the new assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In early June, Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, visited Jakarta, Bangkok and Phnom Penh, making her the first high-ranking American official to travel to the Cambodian capital in almost a decade. 

The US-led Build Back Better World (B3W), a values-driven scheme to pump money into infrastructure-building in developing countries that was announced by the Group of Seven summit last month, has been called Washington’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. That’s too simplistic, yet it’s likely to add to America’s investment mechanisms launched by the Trump administration, including the International Development Finance Corporation launched in 2018. 

However, let us assume that certain analysts are correct and US policy in Southeast Asia since 2017 could not have been any worse – including under the Biden administration.

Even if that’s the case, Washington has reason to cheer. Every year the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore publishes its “State of Southeast Asia” report, a survey of the region’s opinion-formers and experts. When asked in 2020 to make a binary choice of between the US and China, 53% said the US and 46% China. For the 2021 report, it was 61% for the US and just 38% for China.  

Granted, this is likely down just as much to the failure of Chinese policy in the region than to US achievements. Yes, Chinese diplomats tour the region frequently, always stress its importance and lavish praise (as well as a good deal of largesse) on the region’s political bosses. Indeed, Beijing tends to get right what Washington apparently doesn’t, in terms of a stable and all-encompassing engagement.   

Yet in one sense, China shows up too often. Anti-China sentiment has grown across the region in recent years in large part because of the ubiquitousness of Chinese officials, businesses and workers. Comparable to US largesse to Europe after World War II, showing up too much breeds resentment.  

If there appears confusion in US policy it may also be because Southeast Asia has yet to articulate properly what it wants from Washington. More trade and investment are the common demands. Yet US investment stock in the ASEAN region rose from $159 billion in 2011 to $338.3 billion in 2019, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

The region’s combined trade-in-goods surplus with the United States has soared over the past decade, increasing to $120.2 billion in 2019 from $99.6 billion in 2018. By comparison, the region as a whole still has a large trade deficit with China. 

For years, the ASEAN bloc has demanded that it be allowed to sort out regional crises, a way of demonstrating its claimed “centrality.” The Biden administration did just that after the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, over which the US as well as the European Union have backed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to mediate a peaceful solution. Is this neglect, a lack of interest in the region from Biden?

If Washington had taken a more interventionist position in Myanmar – which could be read as Biden taking a coherent values-led approach in the region – then ASEAN would be up in arms about foreign interference in its affairs. 

All too often, the narrative of US policy in Southeast Asia is presented as merely one-sided, that Washington offers and ASEAN takes – and if not enough is offered, then Southeast Asia takes this as neglect.

Hillary Clinton has tried to claim credit for the cliché that when dealing with Southeast Asia, 50% involves just “showing up,” an assertion that is equal parts condescending and simplistic. 

Yet Southeast Asia’s leaders – from the communists to the flawed democrats and military caudillos – expect unbridled adulation from their own people and now expect unequivocal adulation from the diplomats of the superpower states.

As a result, when US diplomats fail to show up in expected numbers and frequency, it’s neglect. When they do show up and voice a less-than-exalting opinion, it’s interference in regional sovereignty. “Turn up and sing our praises” is often the message from the region. 

Rarely asked is what role Southeast Asia is supposed to play in helping Washington formulate a coherent policy. Is there any quo for America’s quid? For years, we’ve been told that Washington needs to do more as a “security partner” for the region, yet since 2017 the Philippines, a treaty ally, has dangled the possibility of ending the Visiting Forces Agreement. 

And, moreover, what assistance will Southeast Asian governments offer over the more controversial issues? A case in point is the controversy surrounding Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base.

US officials have alleged since 2019 that Cambodia has secret plans to allow Chinese troops to use the base, which would fundamentally shift South China Sea rivalry in Beijing’s interest through direct access to the Gulf of Thailand. The likes of Thailand and Vietnam have explicitly made it known they would oppose any such deal, and others, including Singapore and Malaysia, have intimated this through back-channels. Yet none has tried to mediate a solution to this issue through the regional bloc. 

What is the US supposed to do? It has taken a tough stance on the matter, haranguing Phnom Penh for years to open up the naval base for inspection. (In June, after Sherman’s visit to Phnom Penh, the US Embassy’s defense attaché was only allowed to visit parts of the site, leading to more suspicions that Cambodia is hiding something.) 

According to the Cambodian government, America’s actions are Cold War–like paranoia, a show that Washington wants to pressure Southeast Asian countries to choose sides. For Washington, preventing Chinese military deployment in Cambodia is key to protecting other Southeast Asian states from new forms of Chinese aggression. 

Conventional wisdom dictates that Southeast Asian states don’t want to take sides in the US-China rivalry. In reality, they want to take both sides, hoping to play one off against the other to extract the greatest rewards for themselves, from ever more lavish attention and adulation to increased sums of inward investment and development assistance. 

A dangerous balancing act indeed, and the likes of Cambodia show it is easy to lurch toward one end of the superpower spectrum with few ways of returning to neutrality. The Philippines seemed to be gravitating toward the China axis but has now swung back the other way. 

It is tacitly accepted that America is supposed to offer some security to Southeast Asian states from Chinese aggression. Not enough is a sign of neglect. Too much and Washington is charged with escalating tensions and not accepting China’s rise. 

Speaking in March, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted, “The US is still No 1 but No 2 [China] is not so far behind…. That is what is difficult for the US to accept.”

Yet he added, “What we would like to see is China being a country where its prosperity, development and growing strength is welcomed by other countries in the world, who see this as an opportunity for them to prosper together and live in a stable world together.” In other words, “Why can’t everyone get along and make money?” 

Another common argument is that Washington must engage with Southeast Asia on its own terms, rather than regional states merely derivatives of America’s competition with Beijing.

For starters, however, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. How can increased US investment in the region not be partly viewed as competition with China, since investment opportunities are overlapping? How can the US seek to engage more in issues such as the Mekong River, as it has since 2019, without that engagement overlapping with China’s? 

Would a China-neutral US foreign policy really benefit the region’s leaders? If Washington were suddenly not to care about China’s geopolitical importance, why would it invest so much energy in the South China Sea disputes? Respecting international law, may be the riposte. But does Vietnam really want an international investigation into its own claims in the South China Sea, which in some parts are just as tenuous as China’s claims? 

If there weren’t the risk of “losing them” to China, Washington would have more to say about the authoritarian governments in Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Singapore’s and Malaysia’s questionable political systems. Vietnam’s economic miracle would have been less glossy if the US hadn’t gone out of its way to champion it at every stage because of Hanoi’s tensions with Beijing. Say what you will, Southeast Asia’s autocrats sleep easier because of the US-China rivalry. 

At a certain level, US policy must remain flexible and prosaic, since Southeast Asia’s position is perpetually shifting along the axis between the US and China, not knowing exactly where it wants to sit. As such, a too dogmatic and structured policy could be a hindrance.

And it’s difficult for Washington to find out exactly what Southeast Asian states want from it – except to invest more, buy more, and speak in even more adulatory tones – since the foreign interests of the Southeast Asian states are inherently uncertain in themselves. 

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.