An Opportunity in Need of a Strategy - The US Chance in Southeast Asia

Bottom Line Up Front


Following Trump’s inauguration, consequent abandonment of the TPP and absence of stated policy coherence regarding the region, the prospects  for American involvement in Southeast Asia has been thrown into disarray. This is absolutely to the detriment of US economic and stability interests in the region. The US desperately needs, and will benefit from, a clear, coherent  diplomatic policy towards Southeast Asia.


Southeast Asian states rely heavily on trade and foreign investment for their domestic growth, which complicates their relationship to China. By helping these countries increase their ability to protect their borders and people, manage their economies, and streamline their trade policies, the US can aid regional stability and build more reliable partners in the future.


US involvement in Southeast Asia should be designed for the country level. Security and trade agreements should be made with countries individually, with adjustments to regulations, environmental policy and all other diplomatic engagements occurring  through ASEAN.



The US presence in Southeast Asia is not new, though opinions on the value of its presence have varied widely over time. And over the last 15 years, DC’s diplomacy in the region has found a strong counterparty in Beijing, which sees Southeast Asia as its historical and rightful sphere of influence. Beijing has been working to compel Southeast Asian countries to accept imposed limits on their sovereignty when their wishes conflict with its own, and much of the internal and external diplomacy in the region is now centered around questions of whether and how to resist or comply with such coercion. American involvement is part of this calculation for these countries, and can play a stabilizing role in the region through economic and security-oriented relationships with them.  

But, concurrent with this, the US can support the growth and strengthening of ASEAN, the major IGO of the region, to help it exert more effective influence itself. By encouraging ASEAN to expand its international role and dictate its own interactions more cohesively, DC can cultivate a legitimate perception of itself as a partner on equal terms, rather than a colonialist, in a region where sensitivities about that still run very high. This is not only consonant with American values at a general level and promotes these values overseas, but is also emblematic of a diplomacy that values minimal commitment and restraint in action. It further creates a valuable PR counterpoint to Beijing’s often neo-Tributary behavior in the region, improving the US image. And finally, helping to achieve this greater cohesion and reliability within the region will make ASEAN a stronger partner for US organizations, whether political or commercial.

ASEAN and its member countries have existing economic relations with China through Beijing’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other agreements; the US should not seek to exclude China from regional trade, but to provide an alternative for countries like Vietnam that rely on trade to drive domestic growth. Supporting this growth would also help make the ASEAN Economic Community a more realizable goal while also countering China’s preference for compelling deeply imbalanced bilateral trading deals with states in the region.


ASEAN consists of 10 member countries in Southeast Asia (Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, and the Philippines), together totaling over 620 million people. ASEAN GDP, which exceeds $2.5 trillion, is from overwhelmingly from trade, and GDP is projected to grow by 5% annually for at least the next 3 years. The organization began as an international political organization to ward off the threat of communism in the 1960s, and shifted to focus on region building following wars in Cambodia and Vietnam. Region building efforts shifted to the economic sphere after the creation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in the 90s, and integration continues as the group builds toward the full realization of the ASEAN Economic Community, a Southeast Asian common market. Half of the world’s shipping (by tonnage) sails through the South China Sea, and by 2050, over 57% of the world’s population will be reachable by a flight ≤ 5 hours from Yangon. Considering regional population growth, urbanization, and the eventual emergence of a middle class consumer base in the region’s poorer countries, this region will continue to be vital to global value chains in electronics, raw materials, and agricultural sectors in addition to having tremendous market potential.


US involvement in Southeast Asia ought to start from a position of working with individual Southeast Asian states to address mutual interests bilaterally. Individual trade deals can be negotiated more straightforwardly and in ways more tailored to the details of each relationship, given that, for instance, US trade with Singapore is rather different than US trade with Vietnam.

For broader, networked regional issues, the ten countries of the region already have ASEAN, a vibrant organization for projecting their own collective interests in the region. But its internal cohesion, which has often been rather incomplete, could benefit from US assistance and supplementary diplomacy, in concert with invitation and partnership of its members. In so doing, the US can bolster the legitimacy of the pursuit of these interests, while achieving a kind of magnifier of its diplomatic effort, while refraining from excessive, lengthy, costly regional commitments that often alienate local partners rather than draw them in to the US cause.

There is ample opportunity to promote both US values and interests in Southeast Asia. And with Beijing seemingly ready to employ hard and coercive power to establish a quasi-suzerain, neo-tributary relationship with the region, there is also a compelling cause so to do. The US would be foolish to miss out on this opportunity.