Austin Accomplishes Two Missions in Southeast Asia

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spent this week in Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The choices are telling. Among the 10 countries of Southeast Asia, those are the three that are most strategically aligned with the United States and most supportive of a robust U.S. presence in the region. They are also the three in which some attention from Washington is likely to deliver concrete progress in the short to medium term. Other partners, most obviously Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, are also important and warrant greater focus from Washington. But a secretary can’t be everywhere at once, and Austin’s choice of stops reflects an accurate prioritization of U.S. partnerships in Southeast Asia.

The trip was reflective of the two-track approach that Washington is by necessity taking toward the region. On the one hand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains the only game in town for regional architecture and so must be supported. In Indonesia and Singapore in particular, “ASEAN centrality” is fiercely coveted by political elites who see it as the best way to guarantee the region’s autonomy in the face of larger powers. The United States has for the last 15 years seen support for ASEAN as a smart strategic investment. It provides a venue for all interested actors to meet, if not always productively. And it is the best hope for developing regional institutions that could someday moderate China’s ambitions. The first two days of Austin’s trip, spent in Singapore, were in part about signaling support for ASEAN and assuaging concerns that U.S. policy in the region might undermine its centrality.

But ASEAN is a long-term bet. In the short term, it is impotent in the face of the region’s most pressing political and security issues, from the South China Sea disputes to the dying Mekong River and the crisis in Myanmar. The only way to advance the interests of the United States and its partners on such critical issues is by working bilaterally with those states most receptive to it—the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore—and multilaterally through non-ASEAN entities like the Quad. Austin’s last three days in Hanoi and Manila were about securing real deliverables along this second track.

Part I: Singapore

The centerpiece of the secretary’s time in Singapore was his speech at the IISS Fullerton Lecture series. It was intended to reassure allies and partners that the administration gets it: Southeast Asia is vital, and the Biden team has, through a mix of distraction and bad luck, been showing it too little attention. Most of the region had hailed Joe Biden’s election victory in November 2020. The annual survey of elite opinion by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)-Yusof Ishak Institute, for instance, showed a double-digit bounce across the board in favorability and trust in the United States. But six months after his inauguration, the post-honeymoon glow has begun to wear off. President Biden has not spoken with a single Southeast Asian leader by phone. Until this week, no cabinet official had visited the region. When it comes to Asia, Washington’s attention has been fixed on elevating the Quad, which includes Australia, India, and Japan, and ensuring Europe is on the same page when it comes to the China challenge. Those are important and more productive than engaging with a deeply dysfunctional ASEAN. But half a year is still too long to go without showing Southeast Asia some high-level diplomatic attention.

Austin delivered a very good speech in Singapore that started to address this neglect. It hit all the points it needed to, and the reception from regional experts and journalists seems almost universally favorable. This is because the secretary framed his remarks around a positive agenda—delivering public goods and strengthening partnerships—and addressed competition with China only secondarily.

Austin opened on Covid-19, emphasizing that while the Quad’s vaccine production scheme has been slow out of the gate, it is committed to delivering 1 billion doses to the region. There were no new details on how the Quad partners hope to make that happen. But the remarks laid down an important marker. It showed Washington still realizes that assisting Southeast Asia with Covid recovery matters more than anything else it might do; failing on that front would severely undermine the rest of its regional agenda. The Quad leaders will presumably make kickstarting the vaccine scheme a major focus of their first in-person summit in the fall. And in the meantime, the increase in U.S. vaccine distribution since June—80 million doses globally, half of which have gone to the Indo-Pacific—serves as a significant, if modest, sign of U.S. seriousness.

The secretary then moved on to how the United States hopes to strengthen alliances and partnerships, including with ASEAN. Austin raised his signature concept of “integrated deterrence,” which means better networking non-traditional aspects of U.S. and partner-nation power—cyber, technological, informational, and so on—to bolster resiliency and enhance deterrence. The idea should resonate with regional partners that have limited conventional capabilities and lament the over-securitization of U.S. engagement. Austin insisted that the Quad and other efforts outside the grouping are complementary to, not in competition with, ASEAN centrality. That might not have convinced many listeners, who recognize that there is a real but manageable tension between ASEAN centrality and extra-regional initiatives like the Quad. But the diplomatic gesture seemed appreciated all the same.

This section also marked the first part of the speech in which Austin referenced China but through the lens of partner nation interests. The secretary lamented that Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea threaten the “rights and livelihoods” of Southeast Asian claimants. He said the United States would continue to help partners improve their capabilities to “better protect their sovereignty—as well as the fishing rights and energy resources afforded them under international law.” And he reiterated U.S. treaty commitments to defend Japan against attack on or around the Senkakus and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Nowhere were the problematic slogans about “freedom of navigation” and “fly, sail, and operate wherever allowed by international law,” which too many Asian partners take as only applying to the U.S. Navy. Austin’s message was that the United States opposes Beijing’s claims because they threaten the freedoms of all, not just those of the United States. The shift in emphasis was welcomed by many regional maritime experts.

Only in the last third of the speech did the secretary turn directly to U.S.-China tensions. He struck a good balance—perhaps the best possible given the circumstances—between remaining firm while assuaging regional concerns. The United States “will not flinch when its interests are threatened,” he said. But it seeks a “constructive, stable relationship” with China and is focused on strengthening crisis communication mechanisms to prevent competition from escalating to conflict. And he reiterated, as every U.S. official seemingly must, that Washington is “not asking countries in the region to choose.”

Overall, the speech was about U.S. allies and partners, not China. In a rhetorical contrast with the Trump motto of “America First,” Austin insisted, “We know no one can go it alone.” It was the right message for a regionwide audience, assuaging fears and buying the administration a little more time to follow through with action. Washington will now have to build on that foundation, starting next month with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum and Vice President Kamala Harris’s expected trip to Southeast Asia.

Part II: Vietnam and Philippines

The Fullerton Lecture speech was meant to address criticism and assuage fears from the region at large. The rest of the trip was about making progress on the most important bilateral partnerships in Southeast Asia. This actually started in Singapore when Austin met with his counterpart, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen. The two reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Singapore defense relationship, which is critical to U.S. naval presence, in particular. They reaffirmed previous agreements, including the 2019 renewal of the pact that allows U.S. access to Singaporean facilities, and plans for Singapore Air Force F-16s and F-35s to train in Guam. And the two said they would continue “discussions on U.S. force posture initiatives,” a sign that the city-state is open to additional U.S. access in the future.

After leaving Singapore, Austin headed to the two places in Southeast Asia where most citizens are not worried that the United States is too confrontational toward China. In Vietnam and the Philippines (President Rodrigo Duterte himself excepted), publics and strategic elites share U.S. anxieties about China, are therefore supportive of tougher policies toward Beijing, evince little faith in ASEAN, and are quite positive about the Quad.

Of these two, Hanoi was the easy part. Just a week before Austin’s trip, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative formally closed a Section 301 investigation into alleged currency manipulation by Vietnam. This followed a deal between the U.S. Treasury Department and State Bank of Vietnam, putting to rest a years-long sticking point in the relationship and removing the risk of sanctions. With that hurdle out of the way, Austin enjoyed a positive reception from senior officials including Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. They discussed cooperation on Covid-19, doubtless made easier by the delivery of 3 million Moderna vaccines to Vietnam days earlier, and enhanced cooperation on maritime security. Austin also signed an agreement on war legacies, enlisting Harvard and Texas Tech University to help Vietnam search for those missing in action. And he took time to lay a wreath at the site where the late John McCain was shot down over Hanoi during the war.

Austin then flew to Manila where the stakes were highest. For over a year and a half, President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to abrogate the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) had cast a pall over the United States’ oldest Asian alliance. That pact facilitates the entry of U.S. military personnel and platforms into the Philippines for counterterrorism cooperation, disaster relief operations, and hundreds of training engagements each year. It also makes possible the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a 2014 deal under which U.S. forces are to gain access and fund upgrades to Philippine military bases for, among other things, a strengthened deterrent against Chinese aggression. Ending the VFA would effectively kill EDCA and neuter the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

Upon landing in Manila, Austin headed to the presidential palace for a courtesy call with the president. That meeting ran a surprising 75 minutes, and the Philippine government’s readout suggested it went well, with both sides reaffirming the importance of the alliance. During a joint press conference the next morning, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana announced that the president had decided to end the abrogation process. He noted that an “addendum” had been negotiated to address outstanding concerns, the contents of which are still unclear. This, clearly, was the most important outcome of Austin’s week in Southeast Asia.

To wrap up his trip, Austin met with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin and then paid his respects at the American Cemetery in Manila. This visit to the final resting place of over 17,000 U.S. and allied service members, including more than 500 Philippine Scouts, was a poignant symbol of the historical bond between the two countries. And with the VFA safe, they can get back to the urgent task of strengthening the alliance to confront shared threats, most especially in the South China Sea.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative