The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 17, 2022

The Biden administration on February 11 released its Indo-Pacific Strategy document. Inside, the administration lays out five security and economic objectives aimed at advancing U.S. interests in the region. The new strategy shares much in common with the previous strategy released at the end of the Trump administration, especially in its focus on countering an increasingly aggressive and coercive China by promoting a rules-based order, as well as the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Where the new strategy differs is its emphasis on alliances and partnerships, including those in Southeast Asia.
The strategy places regional alliances and partnerships at the center of U.S. policy while reiterating support for ASEAN centrality. It restates the administration’s goal of hosting a U.S.-ASEAN leaders summit in Washington in the coming months. The strategy repeatedly highlights the U.S. alliances with the Philippines and Thailand (alongside those with Australia, Japan, and South Korea), a clear distinction from last year’s Interim National Security Strategy which made no mention of the two treaty allies in Southeast Asia. It also flags the importance of U.S. partnerships with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. The Indo-Pacific Strategy reiterates Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s concept of integrated deterrence toward China. That concept remains loosely defined but may become clearer in the forthcoming 2022 National Defense Strategy.   

The Indo-Pacific Strategy says the right things about Southeast Asia and will be cautiously welcomed in the region. But it spends even more time highlighting the importance of the relationship with India and the role of newer multilateral vehicles—the Quad and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) agreement—for addressing regional challenges. The Quad’s central role in the administration’s approach to the region was made clear by the joint statement of the grouping’s foreign ministers released just hours before the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Quad continues to worry some governments in Southeast Asia, who fear its potential to diminish ASEAN centrality. Quad members are aware of those concerns and seem committed to addressing them, as reflected in the focus on ASEAN centrality in the foreign ministers’ statement.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s major gap is the lack of specifics on economic statecraft. The document flags the U.S. decision to host APEC in 2023 as a sign of commitment to economic rulemaking. It reiterates the administration’s intention to negotiate an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) covering infrastructure, decarbonization, the digital economy, anti-corruption, and labor and environmental standards, among other issues. But it provides no new details about that effort, which is not expected to include market access provisions. What tangible benefits IPEF will offer instead is the most pressing question about the overall Indo-Pacific Strategy.
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