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[Analytics] Has the US lost Southeast Asia to China?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations mistakenly posted a Philippine flag with the red field on top in its greeting on the country's 121st Independence Day. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said that Southeast Asian nations should stand up to China to defend their maritime interests, assuring them that they can bank on the United States for support. Umair Jamal specially for the ASEAN Today.

While speaking to a gathering of the foreign ministers of AEAN, Washington’s top diplomat said that “Today, I say keep going. Don’t just speak up but act…Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people.”

In the past, ASEAN member states have avoided taking sides when it comes to the ongoing competition and animosity between Washington and Beijing in the region and globally.

This is partially because Washington has lost its credibility in the region as a dependable partner. A recent survey conducted by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore determined that Washington has become less dependable as an ally and has lost strategic ground to Beijing under President Donald Trump.

As Washington’s credibility wanes in Southeast Asia, China is rushing to fill the vacuum. While most Southeast Asian countries don’t welcome this change, Washington’s leadership in the region doesn’t inspire confidence any longer.

Why has the US lost credibility as a reliable partner in Southeast Asia?

US influence is in relative decline in Southeast Asia compared to rising powers such as China and Russia. In the past, US leadership in Southeast Asia benefited greatly from a regional network of alliances.

But a majority of Southeast Asian countries now believe that the US cannot be relied upon when it comes to military and commercial threats poses by China’s rise. The decline in the US commitment to Southeast Asia has quickened under President Trump.

During the 2019 ASEAN Summit in Thailand, for instance, Washington couldn’t rally support for its condemnation of Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea. At the summit, a key issue was China’s incursions in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, which Washington has continuously condemned. However, Washington failed to deploy its full political and diplomatic clout at the summit to call out China on its illegal actions. The US sent a lower-level delegation to sit across from leaders like Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mark J. Valencia, an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies writesthat the lower-level US delegation at the summit didn’t inspire confidence among Washington’s allies in Southeast Asia. In fact, the US representation “embarrassed summit host Thailand, a traditional US ally, and confirmed suspicions that ASEAN does not figure prominently in US strategic thinking and that US commitment to the region is unreliable,” Valencia argued.

When it comes to the South China Sea, ASEAN is aware of Washington’s limitations as far as deterring China’s provocations. For instance, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines doesn’t want to rely too heavily on his country’s longtime ally. Instead, he is getting closer to China because he cannot bank on Washington’s military support to stop the Chinese from entering the country’s waters. Duterte has visited China four times since getting elected in 2016 and recently termed a Chinese ramming of Filipino boats “a maritime incident.” “There was no confrontation,” he said. “There was no bloody violence.”

ASEAN’s ongoing code of conduct (COC) negotiations with Beijing will further undermine the United States’ alliances in Southeast Asia. Beijing’s maritime claims over many of the disputed islands in South China Sea suggest that its military presence there may eventually be accepted as a new status quo.

Under the COC framework, China is demanding that ASEAN member states stop joint military exercises with external powers, including the United States. If accepted, Washington would lose a major source of support for its presence in the South China Sea. This loss of regional partners would ultimately undermine US’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

China and ASEAN’s trade is also booming despite the rising disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN is now China’s second-largest trading partner, having overtaken the US for the first time since 1997. In 2018, both sides approved the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030. Under the agreement, the two sides have decided to realize a goal of US$1 trillion in bilateral trade and $150 billion in investment by the end of 2020. All ASEAN member states are also members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Washington’s attempts to isolate the AIIB has only resulted in the US getting excluded from what is likely to be an important and influential institution in the Asia-Pacific.

With no indication of Washington’s plans to lead on trade and investment, the United States is only facilitating China’s growing role in Southeast Asia. China now sits at the center of all negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional trade agreement that aims to bring together ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. While the RCEP is expected to define Asia’s economic future, Washington is nowhere to be seen.

Explaining how the US is losing Asia to China by not joining the ECEP platform, Samir Kumar and Ely Ratner argued in Foreign Policy that “These initiatives are important not primarily because of their raw economic impact—which is assuredly less than meets the eye—but instead because they have induced snowballing perceptions of inevitability about the future of a China-led economic order in Asia.”

How can Washington win back Southeast Asia?

Arguably, Washington’s hard power is still dominant in Southeast and the United States is likely to rely on this to shore up its influence and present itself as a reliable partner who can deter China’s military threats. However, Washington’s soft power has not proved adequate for Southeast Asian countries. Southeast Asian nations want guarantees that are demonstrated on the ground rather than presented in the form of policy briefs.

So far, Southeast Asian countries have continued to engage Washington as a means to counter China’s growing military presence in the region. However, this assessment may also run its course if Washington does not drastically change its Southeast Asia policy soon. Any such change would definitely require increased cooperation on military, trade and other regional economic frameworks including the RCEP. Unless this happens, any calls from Washington for cooperation from ASEAN states against China’s agenda in the region, will only fall on deaf ears.

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