Pawn or Queen? ASEAN on the Chessboard

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Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to the Asia Chessboard. The podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hannah Fodale: This week, Mike sits down with Amitav Acharya of American University to unpack Amitav's new book ASEAN and Regional Order, Revisiting Security Community in Southeast Asia . Amitav and Mike assist the current state of ASEAN, its durability and the meaning of ASEAN centrality. They also discuss the role of the Quad, US China competition and US engagement with Southeast Asia.

Mike Green: Welcome back to the Asia Chessboard. We're going to talk about ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, arguably one of the most successful international organizations in modern history, and also one of the most maligned and frustrating because of the consensus-based rules and what seems like less of a role in an era of great power rivalry. Or, is that the case? We're going to try to unpack that with perhaps the greatest scholar we have in the United States, arguably anywhere on ASEAN and ASEAN's history, Professor Amitav Acharya who is the UNESCO chair in transnational challenges and governance. And, distinguished professor at the School of International Service at American University where he leads the ASEAN studies initiative. I have been reading Amitav's work for, I don't want to make us sound too old, but decades. And, in the 1990s as there were huge debates about the future of Asian order, Amitav stood squarely at the front of what I would call the liberal institutionalist view that multi-laterals mattered and could work.

Mike Green: So, he's been at this a long time. He has a new book out called ASEAN and Regional order, Revisiting Security Community in Southeast Asia , which reviews the history of ASEAN and describes its relevance in the complicated geopolitics we see in the region today. Amitav, thanks so much for joining us.

Amitav Acharya: Thank you, Mike, really appreciate the chance to talk about my new book, especially with you, since again as you reminded, we go back a long way. And, I think we have participated in each other's projects and different book projects and also some events. So, this is the first event promoting my book after it was published. So, thank you very much for the opportunity.

Mike Green: That's great. Well, I always enjoy it. I lean a little more on the realist side, but every time I'm about to get pulled into that dark space, you pull me back. So, I'm looking forward to the discussion today. Tell us, Amitav, how did you get into this line of work? What experiences and scholarly influences got you focused on ASEAN?

Amitav Acharya: Well, I think the main thing is how I get to Southeast Asia as a region as a geographic area before I went into ASEAN. The reason was geographical and almost like an accident, like a stopover. I don't know if you knew my background. I grew up in India on the East Coast of India in the state of Orissa. And, Orissa has very historical links through the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia. So, we grew up hearing about the region, Southeast Asia, the golden lands or Suvarnabhumi, the name of the Thai airport now. So, I was always interested in Southeast Asia.

Amitav Acharya: But then, I started in Australia, the West Coast of Australia in Perth. That side of the Indian Ocean now calling the Pacific. After I finished my PhD just before I graduated from Perth, my North American degree, I went back home to India. Those days there were no direct flights, so I stopped over in Singapore, and I found that in Singapore, I had a member of my PhD committee was working there, Professor Mohammad Ayub. And, I visited him, and he said, Amitav, we should work here. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, which is now called the Yusof Ishak Institute. The leading institution in the world in Southeast Asian area studies, then and now. And, they offered me a job without even applying for it.

Mike Green: You had just finished your PhD?

Amitav Acharya: Just finished. In fact, I hadn't even gotten my degree. I haven't going to the commencement.

Mike Green: We have to warn all the doctoral students that that's unusual.

Amitav Acharya: Yeah. So, opportunities matter. Having good relations with their committee members matter. And, in fact, I don't know if anybody knows. My first dissertation was not about Southeast Asia. It was about the US Central Command. I wrote one of the first books on the US Central Command. And so, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies told me that, "The kind of work you have done on the US Central Command and power projection of the United States in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, could you do something similar for US policy towards Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific?"

Amitav Acharya: So, my first work was comparing US and Soviet power projection in Asia Pacific. In fact, that was my first article I wrote out of Singapore, but then once you are in the region, and this is where things change. I deeply fell in love with the region. I felt like this is where I belong. In fact, to this day, no other place I feel more at home than Southeast Asia.

Amitav Acharya: So, I spent 12 years there, but go back, because of this multiculturalism. And, that includes India by the way. I've never worked in India. I left India when I was 18-19 years old. I go back every year, but Southeast Asia has bit of India, bit of China, bit of the West, bit of Britain the West. So, in some openness and multiculturalism that the idea that anybody can come in and actually live there, feel comfortable and also meet a lot of people. I have been lucky to meet many, many top leaders, Presidents, prime ministers, ex-prime ministers. The region is open, and this is what attracted me. I decided to make this as my primary study, not the Middle East or the Persian gulf. So, that is really the real reason.

Mike Green: So, your book has a lot of pictures that capture that passion you have for the region. And, I want to start by asking you about the first picture in the book which is a picture of you and former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan. And, you dedicate the book to him, passed away sadly a few years ago. His son was my student at Georgetown, a brilliant, brilliant guy. I think we ought to start by saying something about Surin Pitsuwan, because when people talk about diplomacy, they talk about statecraft, but it's ultimately about people. And he was arguably one of the most important in the history of ASEAN. So, why did you dedicate to him? Obviously you were friends and thought highly of him, but what did he matter to this book and to this part of the world?

Amitav Acharya: Yeah. I think of the reasons both personal and professional. So, I met Surin or Com Surin, I call him Surin, when he was still the Thai foreign minister. In fact the last week of his stent as foreign minister in office. I guess it was a few years into after the Asian financial crisis of '97. And, I interviewed him for my first book on ASEAN, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia. And, I found so impressed. He was open, unassuming. Maybe he was leaving office, but he was still a very active politician. And, we thought he might even become the prime minister. I met him in his office. He was unassuming. He was very friendly. He as an academic. He had his PhD at Harvard on the Southeast Asia one of the topics that I also deal with on the territorial disputes.

Amitav Acharya: And, so I got to know him, and after he left office as a foreign minister, I stayed in touch. And, over the years, I met him many times personally and I invited him to Bristol when I was a professor to get his first honorary doctorate. And, I read his citation. So, we became personal friends.

Amitav Acharya: Then, he became ASEAN Secretary General. And, I self-served as an informal advisor. So, it's kind of a personal relationship. So, we traveled a bit together and he came to Washington to launch the ASEAN studies initiative at American University which is now called ASI which is still there. Professionally, and this is more important in some ways, although for me the personal relations are far more important always.

Amitav Acharya: But, I liked his ideas. And, you know some of the ideas. He is one of the first ASEAN leaders to talk about moving away from non-interference. From a constructive intervention to flexible engagement. He coined the term non-interference to constructive engagement to flexible engagement. A lot of it was in relation to Myanmar. But, also after the '97 financial crisis when they said ASEAN could not really manage the financial crisis of '97, because it was too beholden to non-intervention. ASEAN is not doing anything about Myanmar then because of non-intervention.

Amitav Acharya: So, he criticized non-intervention and called for a more flexible approach even if it means interfering in the domestic affairs of member states. That was really revolutionary those days in the 1990s.

Amitav Acharya: The second idea is his commitment to what is called people's ASEAN. He both as secretary general but even before that as foreign minister thought ASEAN is too elitist which we all know is true. And, ASEAN doesn't really reach out to the people. And, he called for a people's ASEAN, how to get ASEAN to relate more to the civil society.

Amitav Acharya: And, the last but not the least, human rights and democracy. He was of course a member of the democratic Thai government. And, he was very committed to promoting democracy and human rights. In fact, he is the one ASEAN secretary general maybe among any leaders in ASEAN official leaders or government leaders that have come close to promoting, championing human rights and democracy openly. Both as ASEAN secretary general, but before and after.

Amitav Acharya: So, those are ideas that I value very dearly also. And, I think his contributions strengthened ASEAN as well as it gave ASEAN a good face. And, since I have been writing the last year sympathetically but also critically at the same time on these points. I thought he is somebody I could work with and I could be one of his champions, and I am very proud of that.

Mike Green: In some ways Surin Pitsuwan captures the contradictions of ASEAN and the potential of ASEAN in his own personal background, right? He's from a Muslim family from the South of Thailand, I think right? And, has grown up with all the internal contradictions if you will of the potential of ASEAN and was part of a real moment of hope at the turn of the century about ASEANs future. But looking at ASEAN today, there's a lot to be concerned about. And, I imagine if he were still with us, he would be quite vocal in his criticism of where ASEAN is.

Mike Green: The consensus-based decision making at ASEAN which was necessary and by the way is not unique to ASEAN. The EU and other international organizations have that. But, China has figured out how to use that to block any action on any issue of concern to China. The best example being of course the 2016 July decision of the tribunal on the South China Sea ruling when Cambodia blocked an ASEAN statement calling on China to negotiate a code of conduct. And I was in Cambodia that summer actually and Hun Sen publicly said, "China gave us $650 million. That's a lot of money." I mean, didn't even disguise China's interference in the ASEAN process.

Mike Green: Completely at loggerheads really over Myanmar and what's happening right now. In some ways the height of ASEAN agency on broad international relations in Asia came at a time when the US, China, Japan, the major powers were each seeking ASEAN affirmation. The US and China cared what ASEAN thought. It's not clear China cares any more. So, ASEAN really has not moved forward in the direction Surin Pitsuwan would have wanted. And yet, you point out and I'm quoting from your book that, "ASEAN's marginalization even death from changing great power of behavior has been predicted a few times before, but each time has proven to be exaggerated." So, is this time exaggerated also? Can you give us some reassurance about ASEAN? Is this a temporary setback, or our mutual friend from Singapore has said in a recent column, "The ASEAN's not a horse. It's a cow. Don't expect it to do something it's not meant to do." So, what's going on? Is ASEAN doing what it's always meant to do, or is it really in trouble?

Amitav Acharya: So, those are great questions, but let me just start by making one last point about Surin Pitsuwan and contradictions in ASEAN. I won't call it contradiction. I will say ASEAN's diversity. So, ASEAN actually has that diversity, especially at the level of elite and civil society. And, even in the level of the government. So, ASEAN accommodates a wide range of views from the deeply conservative, deeply realist or deeply authoritarian to very democratic, very open, very internationalist. And, I can give you examples in Indonesia since after Suharto like SBY and Jokowi. They're very internationalist. I mean, SBY in particular. Philippines under Fidel Ramos and founders of ASEAN, people like Tun Razak whom I had the privileged of interviewing. They are very internationalist. So, let's say that ASEAN accommodates a big region, 10 countries. So, you can expect that, just like economic disparity, there are also political differences always in ASEAN.

Amitav Acharya: That gets me to the second part of what you just said. That ASEAN's death has been predicted before, and has survived. If you take a long view of ASEAN, and I have studied ASEAN in detail from not just its founding, from even for two decades back before that. My history of Southeast Asia on which ASEAN is founded goes to pre-ASEAN period on things like Association of Southeast Asia or Maphilindo. They were created. They didn't last very long, but ASEAN was successful.

Amitav Acharya: But, anyway as a student in regionalism, I think ASEAN has gone through crises. They're different in nature and source, but they're not less deep and existential. So, if you think of 1975-76. In about 1975-76, US withdrawal from Indochina. ASEAN was nothing but very new. '76 was like less than 10 years of ASEAN. And, people thought how can ASEAN survive as a group of pro-Western States when US withdraws, Britain withdraws from East of Suez. Nixon doctrine. So, I didn't study ASEAN then, but I studied them in retrospect without help of primary documents, archival documents, especially the British documents. The British have no confidence the ASEAN will survive. The Americans have no confidence ASEAN will survive. Even ASEAN countries themselves thought they wouldn't go very far.

Amitav Acharya: So, it's in my first book Constructing and Securing Community. And, some of it's in this new book as well. Second, look at the '97, 1997 Asian financial crisis. I was in the region. So, Indonesia collapses specifically. Every country loses 10-20% of GDP. Malaysia says that 30 years of the development down the drain. And, there was huge amount of pessimism about economic if not ASEAN as a diplomatic community, but at least the survival of ASEAN or ASEAN states as independent entities.

Amitav Acharya: You also talk about China. China has always played a kind of a difficult role, an ambiguous role. Before 1976-77, China was supporting communist insurgencies. For every ASEAN country, the five original members, China was seen as much more of a security threat than, from a different way, but because trying to overthrow governments were supporting communist insurgencies. And now of course China has increased military direct power, but then also China had a lot of strategic power too. In some ways if you're close to China what you see is not entirely new. And, those days United States was withdrawing after Vietnam from the region. These days U.S. is at least in fear of withdrawing.

Amitav Acharya: So, I have seen and read about this. And, that's why I'm a little less worried about that ASEAN will disappear. But, I think the most important reason why ASEAN will survive and probably not marginalized is because there is a realization. And, this is common to all ASEAN members that if they lose ASEAN, they are non-entities. Nobody will care. So, they would lose their voice, and they will be even easier targets for intervention. So, that realization is there even in the Hun Sen’s Cambodia, the Philippines and Singapore, which for a long time had advocated that its relationship with U.S. is much more important than its relationship with ASEAN, but that has changed. So, that's why I'm not as pessimistic having read the deep history of ASEAN for a long time. I have seen this type predictions before. And, they have not materialized.

Mike Green: So is it fair to say that the greatest contribution of ASEAN to regional stability is ultimately providing a framework for inter-regional stability? When ASEAN was created 55 years ago about our age, the reality was the British had a battalion of Gurkhas in Brunei to defend Brunei's sultan from its neighbors. Singapore's defense strategy was entirely about fighting Indonesia or Malaysia. I mean, most militaries in the region were prime to fight each other. That's simply not the case anymore. And, the fact is that the great powers have not been able to pull ASEAN apart.

Mike Green: And, that in itself was the original purpose in some ways inter-regional stability. And, ultimately, it's not that ASEAN is going to resolve great power rivalry per se. But, it's going to inoculate Southeast Asia against it, because ASEAN states have found ways to resolve their inter-regional disputes. So, that's ultimately the part of ASEAN we should care about. Is that fair, or should we expect more?

Amitav Acharya: No. That's extremely fair what you said, and you have really touched on the heart of my book, my argument. And, not only in this book, but the heart of everything I would have said about ASEAN over the last 25-30 years. So, the ASEAN's main contribution is to the internal inter-regional stability of Southeast Asia. It's not about solving Korean Peninsula, India, Pakistan or US-China rivalry. So, this is what I call a security community, but the book's title is Revisiting Security Community in Southeast Asia which specifically refers to my first book on ASEAN, an earlier book Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia. This is an internal relations concept that when a group of states learns to manage its disputes peacefully. That doesn't mean there will be no conflicts or disputes or even arms buildup, but there is no expectation that this will conflict will be resolved through balance.

Amitav Acharya: So, this is ASEAN's single most contribution which you don't find in many other regions in the world outside of the West. And, this is also remains important. Right? Talk about very validly military organization so ASEAN here in the 1960s and '70s, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia planning against each other to some extent is still there. But, I don't think these countries see each other solving their problems through military force. And, that is the sense of what is the long term expectations of peaceful change. I'm using Karl Deutsch's language here. That has developed in ASEAN.

Amitav Acharya: So, it also leads to the next point really logically where a permanent state. What ASEAN should do. I have advocated in this book in the conclusion and through the book, new book that ASEAN should downsize. Downsize means in terms of how much it takes on. How many broad issues it takes on. And, also ASEAN centrality to me is a very unhelpful term, because that means ASEAN can somehow manage the problems of the Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific. That's way beyond ASEAN's pay grade. I know this is a controversial point. ASEAN should focus in managing Southeast Asia. There's a lot of things to manage there.

Mike Green: So, ASEAN Centrality is the concept that regional institutional architecture, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and so forth has to be centered on ASEAN itself. It's a very Singaporean idea actually. But, the idea that ASEAN should manage broader regional architecture. So, you're basically saying things like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, you're not against them continuing. You just think that ASEAN's should not insist that every regional multilateral or plurilateral organization be set on ASEAN.

Mike Green: For example, in your book, you're quite positive about the Quad. The US, Japan, Australia, India Quad. And, a lot of Southeast Asia experts are not, because they worry it breaks ASEAN's centrality, because it's not an ASEAN centered grouping, but you're quite positive about it. So, is that what you're getting at here that ASEAN should not feel that all regional groupings and plurilateral cooperative mechanisms like the Quad have to go through ASEAN. It's just too much. Is that what you mean?

Amitav Acharya: Sorry. Let me clarify my position on the first question, ASEAN centrality. Now, there's a difference between centrality in the institutions and centrality in managing security problems. So, when you talk about ASEAN centrality in institutions like East Asian Summit or ASEAN Regional Forum, I think that's still very important because there's no other way. I mean, the great powers of the region don't trust each other. So, if China create an institution, Americans do not support it. If India creates an institution, Chinese won't support it. So, great powers cancel each other out when it comes to institution. ASEAN is the only neutral honest broker out there. And, that is okay, but when you talk about managing problems, I mean I don't really see why ASEAN should talk about Korean Peninsula or India-Pakistan. So, these are issues beyond ASEAN's pay grade so to speak. And, ASEAN has spent a lot of time trying to talk about these issues without any success.

Amitav Acharya: So, my point I'm trying to make is that those institutions ASEAN is part of, they are good, but I think ASEAN should get those institutions to work for the stability and security of Southeast Asia which is already a lot if you look at Southeast Asia sea lanes, Southeast Asia as a source of transnational conflicts. So, ASEAN have harnessed the resources and attention of those institutions to keep Southeast Asia stable prosperous and reasonably neutral meaning not taking getting dragged into the end rivalry. But, trying to solve problems in the wider region. I don't know that that was the original purpose of ASEAN centrality, but I think that's the way people see it that ASEAN should do this. ASEAN should do that. And, ASEAN also spends a lot of time talking about and doing this. And, clearly it’s false expectations which it cannot meet.

Amitav Acharya: So, this is like a crisis of expectations which is a title of the sections of my book. On the Quad, you might have slightly misread my intentions here. I do not support or I do not believe rather. It's not my support that Quad can be a successful strategic or military alliance. I think this will be almost impossible. If you had read my book Whose Ideas Matter?, It has a long argument by military alliances with great powers and weak powers in the region doesn't work, even among Asian countries’ multilateral alliances. Bilateral, that's why we have bilateralism. Why there is not NATO in Asia is a concern, a question I've addressed.

Amitav Acharya: So, but Quad will be useful in terms of diplomatic, non-traditional security suits. So, this is where I believe that I am the first to advocate that a Quad should have a vaccine program. Two days after Biden got elected, I wrote an op-ed for Pac Net. What I said the Quad should focus on vaccines. And the Quad should also have a diplomatic consultation. It's good to have four countries, four democracies in the region come together, but the downside is that why ASEAN countries don't like Quad so much, because they didn't create it. None of the Quad members are ASEAN members, so ASEAN doesn't like anything that it was not a party to creating.

Amitav Acharya: So, they see it as a direct frontal challenge to their institutional centrality of ASEAN. But, I don't think they will totally think it's a bad idea because Quad actually gives them some kind of reassurance against China, but they don't want to publicly support it. So, maybe Quad plus is a good idea, bringing in some countries like Indonesia if you can. I think it's going to be very difficult, but I think Quad has become a kind of diplomatic and security in the broader sense rather than security in the strategic sense. And, that is what I would think will be good for the region.

Mike Green: Yeah. I'm struck by your proposal that ASEAN should downsize its ambitions in terms of managing extra regional problems, North Korea, Taiwan Strait. I think that's right. After five years in the White House though I can tell you, you're not going to get the Secretary of State to go to the ASEAN Regional Forum or their present to the AS if they can't talk about North Korea or Taiwan Strait. So, but what you're saying is ASEAN itself should not feel that it's responsible for coming up with solutions. It provides a platform which the great powers can use to talk about these issues. The ASEAN Regional Forum is one of the only places where for example the US Secretary of State and North Korean Foreign Minister can arrange a meeting where you can set up tri-laterals and quadrilaterals around the issues that are outside of ASEAN. So, that convening piece of it I assume you'd want to keep in place.

Mike Green: I have to say on the Quad I think you're right. I was in the White House when the Quad was first created in the midst of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and it was about providing public goods. It wasn't vaccine at the time. It was search and rescue, but that's fundamentally what animated the Quad is these four maritime democracies providing public goods.

Mike Green: Where you and I may have a different view though is as the Chinese military threat expands out to the first and second island chain in the Indian Ocean and precisely because of ASEAN's failure to sanitize itself against that threat. We can have a new version of this in two years to see who's right. I predict that if the PLA keeps this up, you will see increasing military cooperation among the Quad countries. You're already seeing naval exercises. Precisely, not a collective security arrangement, not like NATO. But, more military cooperation because of the direct Chinese challenge to the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. And, I think in many ways the Quad's rise and it is clearly a key part of the diplomacy for the US, Japan, Australia and India now. The Quad's rise I think is related to the failure of ASEAN.

Mike Green: ASEAN sounds like and I would agree it deserves an A or an A plus for creating a security community as you said, but it hasn't received an A plus for sanitizing itself against Chinese intervention. ASEAN is proven very porous diplomatically, militarily even in terms of infrastructure, very porous and I think that is an aspect of ASEAN that frankly is animating the Quad to compensate for that. I'll give you a chance to push back. But, that piece of what ASEAN I think 10 years ago, people hoped ASEAN would do, it's not doing. It's not capable of providing... It can create a security community, but not a security zone. Not an area that is free from interference. The Chinese are moving with great impunity on the air and sea and cyberspace. And, that directly challenges the American, Japanese, Australian and Indian interests.

Amitav Acharya: I don't disagree with you. I just wanted to make a couple of points very clear. The creation of ASEAN was kind of built on a norm of non-participation and military alliances. So, ASEAN was kind of created out of the ashes of SEATO. Although the SEATO continued to exist until '75, even Philippines and Thailand were skeptical with SEATO. And, they sort of sided with regional cooperation with ASEAN because they thought alliances are not very helpful. They are provocative and provocative to their potential enemies, in those days Russia and China. Now it will be China. Also, they don't really address the real security problems of the region which are internal inter-regional. What can SEATO do against a military coup for example? So, that is a nominative element that has some path of dependency.

Amitav Acharya: But, right now, that doesn't mean the four countries of Quad cannot go ahead and do their own thing. I'm saying that some countries will be happy with the Quad. I think Singapore will be generally happy. So, when you say ASEAN is unhappy, doesn't mean all the countries. I think the future government of Philippines will be happy because you are basically creating a push back against China. So, that's okay, but I think my concerns about Quad also is practicality. I think India will never really push to the extent of making Quad a full-fledged alliance, because India is too vulnerable to China. And, it knows that too much participation in Quad will increase China's presence. It's like security dilemma in some ways.

Amitav Acharya: And, Japan, you know much more about Japan than I do, but I think you can see that Japan will be also cautious. Look at the Japanese statement in the G7 a couple of days ago. They're not completely siding with US policy on China. So, I think there will be some caution on the part of the Asian members of the Quad to turn it into a full-fledged military alliance because they are directly vulnerable to Chinese counter pressure, or counter move. But, that doesn't mean that Quad will not have military exercises which is already happening anyway in some ways. And, sharing of information. Military, industrial cooperation. All these things can happen, but an alliance is giving mutual guarantees of security like the one you have with the U.S.-Japan alliance. I don't see that happening in the Quad for a variety of reasons. Practical reasons and also reasons for not provoking China too much on the part of India and maybe even Japan.

Mike Green: Yeah. I agree with that. I don't think the Quad is going to become a... It would take extraordinary Chinese stupidity to turn the Quad into a NATO or U.S., Japan, U.S., Korea style alliance with a mutual security guarantee, but you know the U.S. participated in World War I without a security guarantee to Britain. The U.S. fought under Australian generals without a security guarantee in Australia. So, it is a real state I think. We'll see. A lot depends on China. China doesn't seem to be backing down. And, it will not be a security treaty. I agree with you on that. At least unless as I said, China does something very dumb.

Mike Green: In your book your chapter on the U.S. is subtitled something like the U.S., the Unreliable. And, looking at history, this is not the first time this has been said either in ASEAN. There's almost a cottage industry especially in Singapore of predicting that the Americans will cut and run just like the Brits did. And, it's almost I think they must teach it in raffles and other Singaporean schools and that fear of abandonment. In your earlier comments you made it sound, and I agree like it's not like the Guam doctrine and it's not like the British pulling out of the East of the Suez and all that, but what would you say is the general concern about the U.S. in ASEAN right now, and what can we do about it?

Amitav Acharya: Yeah. Okay, but if you allow me, I'll just go back to Quad for one second and make one more point. I actually was giving a talk to the Indo-Pacific Command like two weeks ago in Honolulu. And, this thing came up. Although I was talking about history. I think the most important contribution America can make is freedom of navigation, freedom of seas. And, I actually told them historically how the sultan of Makassar told the Dutch that the sea has never been controlled by any country. The Asians do not have a tradition of extending their sovereignty to the sea before the Portuguese came in. So, the United States should actually find comfort from the Sultan of Makassar and the Indian Ocean tradition than from the Europeans who actually destroyed that tradition. And, they were very happy with that. The U.S. Indo-Pacific command has actually a historical commission. I think if a Quad has an absolute imperative to keep the sea lanes open and they completely agree on that. And, that's the one thing that is absolutely vital to the peace and prosperity of the region.

Amitav Acharya: So, this idea that the law of the sea had made countries greedy. So, everybody is getting into this is my territory. This is my sea. But, Asia has no tradition, especially Indian Ocean of controlling the sea. So, you can tell this to the Chinese as much as you can tell the druthers. But, going back to the point about the US is unreliable, I think this formulation comes because of two reasons.

Amitav Acharya: I always felt that it was partly a tactical ploy to get American attention. And second to make Americans feel guilty. So, I lived in Singapore for more than a dozen years, but I think you're right. Singaporeans raises more. This is a way of getting attention that to all you're leaving us. You're not reliable. And, I think catching attention is very successful. This becomes a topic of conversation. Now in Washington for 12 years, I've seen this come up every time. So, I don't think others are too worried about it outside of now Singapore. Some countries may be happy about it. Like, Cambodia may be of the current regime. But, I think generally there's no question that Southeast Asia in general wants Americans, the United States to stay and provide balance. There is no question about it.

Amitav Acharya: So, here I don't disagree with Lee Kuan Yew and you and others have been saying. But, that doesn't mean they really think US will go away, but where the unreliability comes in is actually diplomatic engagement. So, you saw what happened in 2019. There is a picture of my book of Admiral Robert O'Brien sitting his back to the camera with three ASEAN country leaders participating because the United States did not send even a cabinet level member to the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. Contrast that with the pictures of Obama I have, like you know it's friendly and nice and I go back only to the Obama period in this book. And, look at how Trump looks uncomfortable holding hands with ASEAN. There's another picture in the book. The pictures can tell 1,000 words.

Amitav Acharya: So, it's the diplomatic unreliability and the lack of attention. The lack of respect and, if you look at another part of my book, I had already anticipated that when it was clear that Biden will become president. That's when the poll had been taken. American credibility went up compared to the previous year survey. America as trustworthiness went up quite significantly, because they thought a democrat administration and this is not to question previous Republican administrations.

Amitav Acharya: But, they compared with Trumps unreliability and they felt the snub that not having a cabinet member in the ASEAN Summit, East Asian Summit as an insult. And, many ASEAN leaders or ASEAN commentators felt that. So, the unreliability is probably at diplomatic level. And, level of commitment to intuitions. Showing up is very important. And, in terms of a discourse of US is withdrawing, to me this has always been a bit tactical. And, deliberate and manipulative in some ways.

Mike Green: You know around the same time as the ISEAS survey, CSIS did a survey in America and around the world on China policy. We asked whether Biden or Trump would be better just before the election for dealing with China. And, a majority of Vietnamese said Trump would be better. So, within ASEAN there are very different views of how much hard power you need and how much multilateralism, but the weird thing is the multilateralism is so easy. It's not hard. You just have to show up. And, it is a bit surprising given how much the Biden administration is emphasizing that America is back and emphasizing diplomacy that we have not nominated an assistant secretary of state for East Asia. And, if my count is right as of the recording, seven of the 10 ASEAN ambassadorships are still open. We haven't announced or filled them. So, it is surprising given how easy it is in some ways to show respect and engage that even the Biden administration which prioritizes that in doing it. They're not stepping up.

Amitav Acharya: You know, as a student of Southeast Asia, not just of ASEAN, but of Southeast Asian domestic politics and history, I cannot overemphasize how symbolism matters. And, if you look at Clifford Geertz’s theater state. All kinds of symbols. Southeast Asians believe in symbolism, faith, and personal touch which is difficult sometimes for United States to appreciate. Although, I saw a lot of American officials are very smart and they in defense of the White House and Obama was around.

Amitav Acharya: There was a big drop out from Obama to Trump, because Obama spent years in Indonesia. He was like a family. And, I think he might have spoiled Southeast Asian Countries leaders a little bit. That they got used to having this very personal, very affectionate attachment with Obama. And then, they found somebody who doesn't care. He may care, but doesn't show it. Doesn't even go to most of the meetings. So, I think that is really important. And, if you look at the ASEAN countries, maybe Singapore is not really a representative of ASEAN. Singapore is too transactional. And too practical in that sense. And, I didn't say that in a negative way, but what's in it for me? And, maybe we're not so emotional and sentimental as the Japanese or the Thais or others.

Amitav Acharya: I think you should take into account there is a cultural dimension to it which Obama was able to push the button very well, and Trump didn't care. Even though I do know Trump administration and state department officials did care, they were not making all the policy. So, I guess that's going to continue to be true. When you're dealing with a country with a different culture, different history and also, I mean, just look at the optics of the symbolism that when Obama got reelected, he went to where? Myanmar, Vientiane. Can you imagine an American president going to Vientiane or Yangon in normal circumstances unless you have conquered the countries. And, these things do matter.

Amitav Acharya: And, I think that's what was missing in the Trump years. And, this is something that should be kind of a long term sort of suggestion or wanting for United States. Although, I can understand if Biden doesn't go to the region because of the COVID pandemic, or because of Myanmar, I think they will understand it, but in a normal year you don't go... Not even an election year. In 2018, Mike Pence went, not Trump. I think ASEAN countries do take note of these things.

Mike Green: I think historians will ultimately judge that President Obama's pivot to Asia was really a diplomatic pivot to Southeast Asia. That was the main thrust of it. And, the policies towards Japan or Australia or the major U.S. allies were little changed from Bush or Clinton continuing that trajectory. But, it is not a transition or shift or pivot in American foreign policy that is difficult to sustain. It's not, because these narratives really matter. It doesn't cost us a lot. The Quad by providing vaccines as you suggested in your Pac Net piece shows we care about ASEAN.

Mike Green: ASEAN success, ultimately the way we should think about it is ASEAN success is America's success. It's not going to solve the big regional problems for us, but if we don't have a successful ASEAN, if we have more of a vacuum in Southeast Asia, those problems are going to get worse. And, the burdens on us for security are going to get worse. And, it's not that hard for us to invest in ASEAN. And, I'm going to conclude by recommending everyone read your book. It's not a super long book. And, it's got basically everything you need to know about ASEAN's history and trajectory and where some smart US investments will have big dividends. So, Amitav, thank you. Congrats on the book. Appreciate you joining us.

Amitav Acharya: Thank you.

Mike Green: There's a new Singaporean street food restaurant in Bethesda I just saw. I don't know what they've got, but it's supposed to be just like you're in Sentosa or something.

Amitav Acharya: And you know, we live five minutes from each other. So, happy to have you to have a beer in our backyard.

Mike Green: Amitav, that's a great idea. We'll start our own ASEAN centrality right here in Bethesda. Thank you.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia Program's work, visit the CSIS website at, and click on the Asia program page.