South East Asia is set to be a key driver of global economic growth in the coming decades, with Indonesia alone projected to be the world’s fourth biggest economy by 2050. Vietnam and the Philippines, each with approximately 100 million people and fast-growing economies, will likely emerge as middle powers themselves. While Thailand and Malaysia have begun to age and are battling to avoid middle-income traps, they are already large, globalized economies. Together, the trajectories of these key countries and the decisions they and their smaller South-East Asian neighbors make on issues ranging from governance to an open internet to a clean energy transition will have global impact.
In the United States, South East Asia’s rise has not gone unnoticed, with its profile rising in recent years due to its importance as a market and its potential to be a partner on addressing a range of global challenges. However, it has been China’s rise and the emergence of strategic competition that has most significantly accelerated South East Asia’s ascent up Washington’s list of strategic priorities.
This surge in US attention has not happened overnight. Beginning in the years of the George W. Bush administration, Washington began to focus considerable attention on the region for the first time since the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War in 1975. Much like today, the context was China’s rise. At the time, China was in the midst of an aggressive and highly effective charm offensive in South East Asia, which raised alarm bells in Washington that China was filling a strategic vacuum. In response, the Bush administration took action, including by becoming the first country to nominate an Ambassador to ASEAN and beginning to focus senior level attention on the region. Non-government centers of influence in Washington also began to take notice, notably with South East Asia programs being established at leading foreign policy thinks, including at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2007.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he famously sought to shift attention and resources toward the Asia-Pacific as a whole and “pivot” or “rebalance” to the region. Perhaps just as importantly, his administration recognized that the United States was strategically over-weighted in North East Asia and under-weighted in South East Asia and sought to recalibrate the share of attention and resources within Asia to seize opportunities in South East Asia. With this in mind, the Obama administration moved quickly to accede to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, flooded the region with high-level visits, and launched myriad low-key mechanisms to institutionalize closer US-South East Asia ties. While the Obama administration’s approach was not entirely centered on competition with China and Obama actively sought to work with China where possible, the specter of rising Chinese influence in South East Asia was a major driver of increased US engagement.
In contrast to president Obama, Donald Trump came into office with few clear perspectives on Asia beyond a sense that the United States needed to more squarely confront China on a range of issues and rectify what he perceived to be unfair trade arrangements with Asian countries. On China, while Trump’s primary occupation has been the economic side of the relationship, his instincts have matched with an emerging bipartisan consensus that the United States should compete more aggressively with China across the board. These instincts were codified in the administration’s National Security Strategy, which puts competition with China at the center of overall US foreign policy. Within this context of competition with China, South East Asia has naturally emerged as a focus, at least rhetorically, for the Trump administration, being a key region where US-China competition will naturally unfold.
Structurally, US interest in deep engagement with South East Asia aligns well with the foreign policy outlooks of the ten countries in the region. They understand they are a collection of smaller countries amid giants and they seek active involvement from a range of actors from outside the region – the United States and China, but also Japan, India, and others – to maintain balance. While all recognize that ties with China will inevitably be a dominant feature of the region’s international relations, none wish for the region to be dominated by China, which makes the weight of US engagement particularly desirable.
However, the Trump administration has tested the boundaries of how much the region wants or needs the United States. At the leadership level, president Trump’s failure to attend the region’s major annual summits in two out of three years has raised doubts about whether the US is truly interested in the region and if it can be relied upon, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Trump’s isolationist tendencies, unorthodox approach to treaty allies, and unpredictability have also all worried South-East Asian partners about US reliability. On policy, South-East Asian countries have been frustrated with the administration's lack of a substantive economic engagement agenda for the region, most visibly demonstrated by the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, only to be replaced by haranguing of individual countries over bilateral trade surpluses with the United States.
Overall, perhaps most damaging to US-South East Asia relations has been the impact of the US-China trade and technology war. While some South East Asian countries stand to benefit in the short term from shifts in global supply chains, uncertainty wrought from the trade war and the drag on the Chinese and US economies have on balance damaged South East Asia. And with deep and enduring ties to both the Chinese and US economies, the oft-mooted idea of decoupling the US and Chinese economies is deeply unsettling – South-East Asians simply do now want to be forced to choose between the United States and China, economically or otherwise. The result is that South-East Asian countries have begun to see the United States as a destabilizing actor, effectively putting US trade actions on equal footing with concerning Chinese activities such as militarization of and coercion in the South China Sea.
Similar to nearly all aspects of US foreign policy, the future of US-South East Asia relations is intimately connected to whether Donald Trump is reelected as president in November 2020. However, some new elements of current dynamics in US-South East Asia relations are set to stay regardless of the outcome, including South East Asia being a regional venue for competition between the United States and China.