Time for US to recalibrate China policy in Southeast Asia
From August 1 to 5, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finished his first official trip to Southeast Asia since taking office in April. This trip was part of Washington's attempt to reshape and expand its footprint in Asia, a critical endeavor to get Southeast Asia back into the US geostrategic radar in the region.
Compared with former US president Barack Obama, his successor Donald Trump has not unveiled a clear policy toward Southeast Asia. In the geostrategic landscape of Obama's rebalancing act, Southeast Asia is an integral and primary pillar. Obama visited almost all Southeast Asian countries, put forward several new and swagger projects and devoted many resources to the region.
However, with the Trump administration, Southeast Asian countries found themselves staring at the prospect of a considerable rollback of US interest. Most countries in the region have become seriously worried about a protectionist Trump administration. Trump's decision to withdraw from the TPP sent a clear and definite signal to illustrate his vision. Scholars argued, "Southeast Asia is of secondary importance after Northeast Asia to the Trump administration's core economic and security concerns in Asia."
President Trump visited Southeast Asia twice. The first in last November was very long, determined by the schedules of APEC and ASEAN summit, not historic and portrayed as reaffirming decades-old continuities of US foreign policy in the region. The second in June 2018 was very short, only focused on US-North Korea relations and the process and outcome of the summit could not represent his re-focus on the region. Although Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited Trump to Singapore in conjunction with the 13th East Asia Summit, it is unknown if Trump will show up.
In this context, Secretary Pompeo's trip to Southeast Asia this summer is very symbolic. He started from Malaysia, which is ASEAN's current country coordinator for the US. As a senior State Department official said, "The primary purpose in stopping in Kuala Lumpur is the bilateral relationship."
Then he flew to Singapore mainly for several multilateral meetings. One is the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) ministerial meeting, where he talked about a water data initiative cooperation between the LMI and Friends of the Lower Mekong.
He also attended several other multilateral group meetings. Pompeo addressed many regional issues, including North Korea, the South China Sea, counterterrorism, the crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine State, cyber security. He emphasized security cooperation through the entire region, funding into the US-ASEAN Connect program and reinforcing US-ASEAN strategic partnership.
After the busy schedule in Singapore, Pompeo's last stop was Indonesia, where he met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, focusing more on bilateral relations.
When evaluating Pompeo's pyrotechnical ASEAN-centric diplomatic engagements in the past few days, can we infer that the Trump administration has upgraded and advanced Southeast Asia to the primary diplomatic agenda? My answer is no. Scuttling the TPP and other unilateral steps put the administration in a deep hole. Pompeo has more to do to scramble out.
The main theme of his trip is about the Indo-Pacific strategy and US vision for an open, transparent, rules-based region and specifically explore the giant potential of the region's economic power, which will be echoing some of the themes that Pompeo addressed in his speech in Washington at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum just days before his trip to Southeast Asia. But Pompeo's efforts have been overshadowed by Trump's protectionist fusillade.
Referring to the LMI, what concerns the Lower Mekong partners most is environmental impact and how they can cope with it. Many of the Lower Mekong countries blame the disasters on climate change. However, the Trump administration's policy toward climate change is so dismissive that it is very difficult to persuade the partners to believe in the US' seriousness to this initiative.
Former US ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian wrote an article in Foreign Policy entitled "How Trump Can Succeed in Southeast Asia." Her core message is ASEAN and the benefits and necessity of multilateralism represented by the bloc is vital to renew American leadership in Asia. What Pompeo said during the trip is regarded by many analysts as a step in the right direction, but there remains a yawning gap between his stated ends - a free and open Indo-Pacific which consists 67 percent of the Earth's surface, and means - defense constraints despite more spending, no replacement for TPP and relatively modest development programs.
During the visit, many of Pompeo's speeches mentioned China and its role in the region. China has been directly or indirectly targeted over security issues such as the South China Sea, LMI and economic engagement represented by the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). To achieve those objectives in Southeast Asia, a constructive China-US relationship is crucial.
As Pompeo pointed out, the infrastructure need in Asia is enormous. But bankable projects are not always easy to identify by the private sector. It is wishful thinking to exclude or even replace China's initiative in the region.
Most ASEAN countries see China's BRI as a big opportunity and expect to benefit from it. On another note, the Mekong River originates in China, and the country plays a critical role on downstream resources. LMI can only be sustainable and productive through cooperation with China and other regional frameworks. Southeast Asian countries welcome US-China cooperation and seek stable relations.
China and Japan signed an agreement in May to set up a public-private body to promote joint operations of the two countries' enterprises in third countries. Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor is likely to become the first planned business collaboration between the two countries. It is time for the US to recalibrate its policy toward China in Southeast Asia, seeking cooperation rather than competition, since Beijing will be the determining factor for the success of US foreign policy in the region.