But rather than trying to push ASEAN to confront China, the White House has made a major gesture for unity.
[By Aristyo Rizka Darmawan]
The United States has just published an Indo-Pacific strategy document, recalling the importance of the region under President Joe Biden. Although the document states that the United States “will focus on all corners of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands”, it is obvious that Southeast Asia is at the heart of the American Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Many of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are specifically mentioned, with the Philippines and Thailand being US alliance partners in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are considered key regional partners.
Unlike the AUKUS announcements, where China figured in the largely ignored background, the new strategy document is explicit that “China’s coercion and aggression span the globe, but they are more acute in the Indo-Pacific”. Beijing is being singled out for its aggressive behavior threatening its neighbors in China’s South and East Seas, leading Washington to say it will help allies and friends in the region.
Southeast Asia has become one of the most important arenas for this great power contest. ASEAN has long emphasized its centrality and neutrality and to ensure this continues, the organization has embraced the ASEAN perspective on the Indo-Pacific. The new US Indo-Pacific strategy does not explicitly mention or endorse ASEAN’s outlook, but it does “endorse ASEAN’s centrality and support ASEAN in its efforts to provide lasting solutions to the most pressing challenges of the region”.
It is an important gesture and, unlike the Trump administration which has too often sought to provoke ASEAN to confront China, the new US Indo-Pacific strategy recognizes and respects the importance of ASEAN unity. .
The document also offers a concrete plan for ASEAN to promote regional prosperity, with the United States pledging to increase foreign direct investment in the region. The United States is already the largest investor in ASEAN countries, with the new strategy promising new measures that will “facilitate high-level trade, govern the digital economy, catalyze investment in high-level transparent infrastructure and will strengthen digital connectivity”. Such engagement is important to balance China’s influence in the region, which has grown significantly over the past decade through its Belt and Road Initiative. It also appears to help make up for the shortfall from the US decision to pull out of negotiations for regional free trade talks.
In the area of security, the new strategy reiterates that the United States has maintained “a strong and cohesive defense presence necessary to support regional peace, security, stability and prosperity,” pointing to the South China Sea and the East China Sea as a priority. . However, it is worth noting that while the document stresses the importance of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, not a single paragraph mentions the United States Navy-led Freedom of Navigation Operations Program (FONOPS). American, which caused controversy. Conversely, the strategy stresses the importance of the Coast Guard in leading maritime security cooperation in the region, in “advice, training, deployment and capacity building…including to build maritime capabilities and awareness.” in the maritime domain. Indeed, in 2021, the US Coast Guard announced a joint maritime training center with the Indonesian Coast Guard in Batam.
The focus on coast guard cooperation can be seen as a positive move as it will be less provocative and sensitive compared to a military presence in the region. And more importantly, Coast Guard operations in Southeast Asia are indispensable in combating threats to maritime security such as illegal fishing.
Beyond traditional economic and security cooperation, the strategy also stresses the importance of people-to-people interaction. In the years leading up to Covid-19, nearly 60,000 students from ASEAN member states studied in the United States. And through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), the United States has sought to foster closer ties with the next generation of regional leaders.
The strategy also illustrates the weight given to US-ASEAN relations. The United States reiterated its commitment to the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum and “will also seek new ministerial-level engagements with ASEAN,” pledging more than $100 million in new joint initiatives.
The US Indo-Pacific strategy promises a lot. The best way to increase U.S. engagement in the region and Southeast Asia in particular will be to demonstrate the benefits for both parties.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer in international law at the University of Indonesia and a young leader at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Foreign Policy Research Institute. His research focuses on international law of the sea and foreign policy in Asia-Pacific. He holds a master’s degree in international law from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
This article appears courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and can be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.