The Biden administration has so far overlooked Southeast Asia in its strategy to contain China. Image: Facebook

Ambassadors from Southeast Asia gathered in Ukraine’s capital Kiev on October 19 to open a new educational facility, at the same time as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was giving an alarming speech in the city about Russian troops massing on the border.

The ASEAN Research Center, at Taras Shevchenko National University, was the intellectual reply to Kiev’s bid to boost relations with Southeast Asia. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s vow to increase trade with ASEAN to US$5 billion has been shelved as the world waits to see if Russian President Vladimir Putin will follow through with his threat to invade.

On the surface, an invasion would only be of slight concern for Southeast Asians. Ukraine is a minimal trading partner and little investment flows in from Kiev. Only about 60,400 Ukrainians visited Southeast Asia in 2019 – fewer than from isolated Iran.

Neither is Russia – which would face considerable Western sanctions, as well as domestic supply problems if it invaded – very important for the region. It was the ninth-largest trading partner with the bloc in 2019.

Only Vietnam, and now the military junta of Myanmar, count Moscow as a partner, mainly for arms sales.  

But what happens next in Ukraine does matter for the region, if only because of the offshoot of a European conflict. A Russian invasion “will be a historic opportunity for us to solve the Taiwan problem,” a Chinese nationalist blogger known as Huashan Qiong Jian wrote this month.

A Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft, left, flying alongside a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force H-6K bomber in 2018. China has recently stepped up its incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. Photo: AFP / Taiwan Defense Ministry

The ‘nightmare scenario’

The “nightmare scenario” is a coordinated attack by Russia on Ukraine and by China on Taiwan, said Richard Heydarian, a columnist and academic. Western fears have been growing almost by the month that Chinese forces could soon launch a limited invasion or blockade of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has never ruled out a violent solution to the Taiwan issue. Some analysts reckon the warpath could be laid out at the quinquennial congress of the Chinese Communist Party, due to take place in the northern hemisphere in October.

But fears of a coordinated attack are a “little too paranoid,” said Heydarian, adding that are doubts about how much cooperation there really is between China and Russia. Moscow isn’t too happy about China chipping into its arms sales markets, which often undercut Russian exports with cheaper alternatives.

Both have incompatible designs on Central Asia. Moscow wouldn’t favor an assertive China to its east, nor is Beijing too happy about Russia disrupting its European trading partners. 

Nonetheless, a Russian invasion of Ukraine risks leaving Washington distracted. Worse, if the US fails to rebuff Russian advances, it would appear weak, no longer able to even throw its weight around a relatively stable Europe.

If its sanctions don’t work against Putin – and some doubt they will, at least in the short term – America’s main source of deterrence will lose its menace in other parts of the world. If sanctions can no longer deter bad actors, that leaves either acceptance or conflict.

If serious disputes with European states break out over how they should respond, the transatlantic compact will be broken, leaving the US ever-more isolated.  

Southeast Asian leaders have been conspicuously quiet over Ukraine this time around.

When Russian troops previously invaded the Eastern European country in 2014 to annex Crimea, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quick to say it was a reminder that small countries need to know how to defend themselves, as well as “strengthen our ties with friends and allies.”

This fleet of Chinese ships sparked a diplomatic row last year after parking at a reef off the Philippines for weeks. Photo: AFP / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

Reliable partners?

That, too, might be the lesson today. One implication of another Russian invasion of Ukraine would be the “realization that Western countries may not be the reliable military partners that many in Asia hope,” William Bratton, the author of China’s Rise, Asia’s Decline, argued in an essay this month.

“Even if the Ukrainian situation is defused, it is abundantly clear that the West had no appetite to use its military capabilities to deter Russian aggression,” he added. “As such, the notion that Western powers will always seek to defend their ideals is fraudulent.” 

Again, none of this is new. Hanoi has long doubted whether Washington would step up if there is an escalation of tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea.

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte flirted with canceling the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US troops access to bases in his country, he pointed to Washington’s apparent failure in the past to back up its treaty ally, including during the Philippines 2012 stand-off with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

“[The West’s] commitment to Asian partners should, therefore, never be viewed as permanent but will always be subject to the vagaries of domestic politics,” Bratton argued. 

In his 2004 book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, the historian Niall Ferguson argued that one of Washington’s main weaknesses was an “attention deficit.”

More recently, he described this as “the [American] electorate’s tendency to lose interest in any large-scale intervention after roughly four years,” an example being last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Yet, the other meaning is the tendency of presidents to shift America’s global focus whenever they enter office. Since the 1970s, US attention has swung from Asia to Europe to the Middle East and, under Barack Obama’s “pivot” in 2011, back to what is now called the Indo-Pacific.

Then-US president Barack Obama, standing with then-vice president Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington July 14, 2015. Photo: Andrew Harnik / Pool / AFP

“I think one of the main challenges for the US if it gets bogged down against Russia in Eastern Europe is to persuasively convince Indo-Pacific allies and partners that it can chew gum and walk at the same time,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. 

“In other words, can Washington still be viewed as dependable to carry out its security commitments while embroiled in the Russia-Ukraine crisis?” he added. “After decades of focusing on the Middle East and Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific allies and partners have reasons to be concerned.” 

“Also, and perhaps more importantly,” Grossman went on, “US adversaries in the Indo-Pacific—namely China and North Korea—might sense a moment of opportunity if Washington appears distracted. Of course, in this context, observers have primarily discussed China taking military action against Taiwan, but other scenarios are plausible as well, i.e. against a Southeast Asian maritime claimant in the South China Sea.”

When Biden ordered the US “retreat” from Afghanistan last year, some in Southeast Asia looked upon it fondly. “Southeast Asia may eventually benefit from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Le Hong Hiep, of Singapore’s ISEAS – the Yusof Ishak Institute research center in Singapore – told Asia Times at the time.

And the move was backed by several regional politicians, including the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr.

In many ways, the retreat from Afghanistan appeared to be the final piece in America’s “pivot” to Asia, which when launched in 2011 was always considered a two-track policy: to refocus on Asia’s increasingly important geopolitics and markets, and as a convenient excuse to walk out of the Middle East’s various quagmires.

There are now concerns, however, that Washington is swinging its attention back to Europe with Biden’s announcement this week that the US is sending 3,000 troops into Eastern Europe. A conflict in Ukraine wouldn’t be resolved quickly and, if an invasion happens, the threatened US sanctions could quickly demand the sort of responses Biden is now shying from.  

“Indo-Pacific watchers are justifiably cranky right now,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, tweeted last week. “We are watching the Biden [administration], which got off to a strong start in our region, now begin to turn its sights to Eastern Europe,” he added.

“We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Hard to stomach yet another failed pivot.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the foreign ministers of ASEAN on the margins of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23, 2021. Photo: WikiCommons 

Reassurances expected

Southeast Asian leaders will expect reassurances. A distracted White House, which was lethargic last year during peace, might not provide enough of them. One positive is Marc Knapper arrived in Hanoi last week as the new US ambassador.

But key Southeast Asian partners, including US treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines, as well as the ASEAN bloc itself, are still without ambassadors. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was critiqued for saying nothing new during his visit to Indonesia in December.

The previous month, Biden said he would attempt to organize a special ASEAN summit in Washington for early 2022, an event that hasn’t materialized. Questions remain over how Biden will respond personally to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a staunch Chinese ally, as the head of the Southeast Asian bloc this year.

ASEAN is almost pathological in its demands for stability and predictability, but it’s unlikely to get it from Washington in 2022.

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno