Biden Can Engage Southeast Asia and Still Promote Good Governance

Southeast Asia is on the frontlines of U.S.-China competition and a vital arena for defending U.S. economic and security interests and those of its closest allies. The region itself is not of one mind when it comes to Beijing or Washington, but it generally favors a greater U.S. presence. Nevertheless, faith in American reliability has been shaken, and partners in the region are eager for signals that the United States is committed and ready to provide alternatives to Chinese hegemony.

The incoming Biden administration will face an apparent contradiction in U.S. objectives, though. On the one hand, it is critical to expand engagement and capacity building in Southeast Asia to reinforce resilience against coercion by Beijing. On the other hand, democratic governance in much of the region is deteriorating, and that has gone unaddressed over the last four years. Weak governance and lack of government accountability enables coercion and foreign interference. But more authoritarian states may lean away from the United States if Washington elevates these issues too much in the bilateral and regional policy agenda.

Too Important to Ignore

Southeast Asia is politically and strategically diverse. That can make it a frustrating place for U.S. engagement. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is fractious and often ineffective. But it is the only game in town when it comes to regional multilateral architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Most Southeast Asian states are unwilling to explicitly call out bad behavior by China or publicly support U.S. counterefforts. But almost without exception, they share the United States’ anxieties about China’s long-term intentions and are desperate to maintain strategic autonomy. Helping them do so is of clear benefit to U.S. interests.

U.S. power projection in the region relies on the access provided by the Philippines, Singapore, and to a degree Thailand. Vietnam could also emerge as a vital security partner in the future given increasing strategic alignment vis-à-vis China. Other partners provide important economic and diplomatic support on certain issues, and keeping them from falling into Beijing’s orbit is a net positive in its own right. But doing so will require an economic strategy that can provide alternatives to Chinese influence and rulemaking—something that the United States has failed to do since abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And it will require a strategy for engaging with states that in many cases face domestic political turmoil and democratic backsliding.

Public and elite opinion across the region show that in all cases, Southeast Asian states want U.S. engagement, but many will not support policies targeted at China. On most issues, the region generally falls into three camps. Vietnam and the Philippines are deeply suspicious of China and could, with sound diplomatic and economic engagement, support many, if not most, U.S. efforts. Indonesia and Singapore are idiosyncratic—nervous about some Chinese actions but unwilling to risk serious economic harm to push back. Each is fiercely jealous of its strategic autonomy and will support U.S. initiatives when its interests align with those of the United States. U.S. policymakers must, however, be willing to give them the space to ignore or even oppose Washington on other issues. The rest of the region, including historical ally Thailand, does not share the United States’ sense of urgency vis-à-vis China and will rebuff any U.S. policy that would put them on the wrong side of Beijing. But possibly excepting Cambodia, none are willing to accept Chinese hegemony and remain hungry for engagement.

Striking a Balance

Despite the promises of the “Rebalance to Asia” and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Southeast Asia by and large sees the United States as distracted and strategically erratic. Most governments in the region are eager for signals that the new administration will fulfill those promises. The democratic backsliding, and in some cases outright authoritarian turn, of much of the region will make it more difficult to engage while still pursuing a values-based diplomacy. The administration should remain committed to promoting democracy in the region. But it should do so with some humility given the United States’ own political challenges.

The Sunnylands Principles on Enhancing Democratic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific Region—an effort led by CSIS and endorsed by regional thought leaders and former officials—provides some guidance on this front. The United States should recognize the diversity of democratic traditions and support local and regional efforts, such as the Bali Democracy Forum, even if they do not precisely match the American ideal. More broadly, the challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to integrate democratic governance into a wide range of bilateral and regional policies on defense, diplomacy, and development. To start down this path, in the first few months the new administration could:

  1. Head off unilateral congressional action on human rights concerns by having senior administration officials raise those issues directly through official channels, especially in the Philippines and Thailand. Make clear that democratic backsliding places a cap on how much security cooperation and development assistance the administration can provide. Work with lawmakers on a game plan for incentivizing democratic improvements within a strategy of engagement.

  2. Engage with core donor countries focused on democracy and governance in the region to align efforts, including with members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Donor Assistance Committee—Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada, and the European Union. Follow these engagements by organizing a summit of democracies.

  3. Direct the U.S. Development Finance Corporation to dedicate at least 60 percent of its funding to projects in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on improved governance and accountability for project finance. Align these efforts with the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for maximum effect.

  4. Direct the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to consult with Philippine officials on the steps needed for the Philippines to requalify for a second MCC grant in FY 2022. The Philippines fell off the list of qualified countries in FY 2020 and FY 2021 due to its poor score on controlling corruption.

  5. Nominate in the first three months of the administration qualified appointees for all open ambassadorships in the region and Asia-related positions in the State Department and pledge that the president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense will attend all relevant ASEAN-based forums. Ensure that statements by all nominees are consistent on the role of democracy and good governance within a larger strategy of re-engagement with the region.

  6. Offer to cancel the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Section 301 investigation into Vietnamese currency devaluation and roll back the Commerce Department’s recent tariffs on tires in exchange for launching a new dialogue to address trade and labor concerns.

  7. Undertake a broad review of Chinese entities engaged in ongoing corruption and human rights violations, especially in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, for the purpose of levying Global Magnitsky Act sanctions.

The early months of the administration will present an opportunity to assuage Southeast Asian anxieties, signal that the United States is in the region to stay, and prepare the ground to compete more effectively with China. But early signals will have to be designed for consistency and sustained implementation.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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