Southeast Asia is Pivotal, and U.S. Strategy Should Aim to Keep it That Way

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In The Art of War, Sun Zi warns that “the general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat.” John Lewis Gaddis hinted at something similar when he defined grand strategy as “the calculated relationship of means to larger ends.” In business, the goal, strategy, objective, tactic (GSOT) method of project management teaches strategists that while goals and strategies should rarely change, it is important to always calculate whether the tactics are delivering on the objectives. Despite doubtful claims of corporate style management curing government ills, the State Department could learn from private sector project managers and approach foreign policy across a temporal spectrum, focusing its work on developing and executing flexible tactics, aimed at achieving adjustable objectives, advancing a broader strategy in pursuit of steady foreign policy goals.

Southeast Asia, conversely, has long been a region in policy limbo with shifting goals. Strategists that write off the region as destined to fall under a Chinese sphere of influence or, blind to history, attempt to force Southeast Asian countries to choose between the United States and China miss the mark. The U.S. ship of state in Southeast Asia needs a directional heading that recognizes China’s power and presence as well as the fact that the United States, and its values, are now an enduring and powerful force across the Indo-Pacific.

Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping (Brookings)

Applying the goal, strategy, objective, tactic method to Southeast Asia, one must first identify the goal. Based on experience in the region, an achievable goal is to ensure 1) Southeast Asian countries can protect their autonomy, identity, and sovereignty, and 2) the United States can compete with China for influence in the economic, ideological, cultural, and political realms. Competition, not control, will keep Southeast Asia pivotal and thus maintain an equilibrium where countries do not have to choose sides or make fundamental concessions on sovereignty. Maintaining an ability to pivot also allows Southeast Asia to show traditional, and cultural, deference to China while simultaneously hedging against its rise. Deference therefore, at least in Southeast Asia, does not equal submission. Rather, it is the region’s tacit recognition of China as a stronger power as shown through the pageantry of high-level visits, participation in Chinese-led initiatives, and avoidance of public disagreements with Beijing. In simpler terms, deference is equivalent to the custom found across Asia of making sure one’s glass is lower than the boss, elder or societal superior during a toast. 

For Southeast Asia to pivot, the great powers must continue to see the region as pivotal; but remaining pivotal, or “of crucial importance in relation to the development or success of something else,” requires the region to maintain its independence. Yet, the current equilibrium is delicate. It could break down if China calculates it can resolve difficult regional issues, like the South China Sea dispute, through force or coercion with minimum political and reputational costs. An aggressive China would force countries like Vietnam and the Philippines to decide if they want to accommodate Beijing and make a deal, or engage in conflict to defend their sovereignty. To compete in what Graham Allison called the “international strategic marketplace,” Washington must sustain the current equilibrium. In this competition, if the United States can convince Southeast Asia to pivot towards American partnership and away from Chinese neo-tributaryism most of the time, it will ensure a “strong, independent, and prosperous” region for decades to come. The possible alternative, a Southeast Asia closed to U.S. values and firmly fixed in a China-led hierarchical system, would sound the death knell for an open marketplace of ideas and United States leadership in Asia.

Achieving this goal does not require U.S. attempts to dominate the region or encourage balancing against China. What the United States gains in helping ensure Southeast Asia remains strong, independent, and prosperous is the ability to compete for influence, thereby ensuring that individual freedom, representative government, personal security, economic liberty, and equality remain values that Southeast Asians are free to choose, reject, localize, promote, or aspire to. Despite the crests and troughs of domestic political cycles, U.S. values and ideals are, and will remain, an attractive alternative to Beijing’s neo-mercantilism and neo-tributaryism. Rather than adopt the tactics of their autocratic competitors, Americans should be confident that in an ideological struggle against an ancient empire, the promise of U.S. values will prevail over antiquated ethno-nationalism and autocracy.

This is not to say that Southeast Asian countries are destined to become liberal democracies; the region’s unique history and culture will continue to shape the development of its political institutions. However, as Malaysia’s recent election has shown, Southeast Asia remains a politically dynamic region that is pivotal in the United States’ growing struggle against autocratic near-peer competitors. Managing this struggle will require a multifaceted strategy similar to the six pillars of the Obama-era Asia re-balance and the current Indo-Pacific strategy, albeit with some important differences.

Supporters of Malaysia's opposition Pakatan Harapan attend an election campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 6, 2018. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

The first pillar of the Obama-era re-balance strategy was “strengthening U.S. alliances,” but when it came to Thailand following the 2014 coup, Washington’s reduction in political engagements with Bangkok had a chilling effect on U.S.-Thai relations. Isolating Thailand only strengthened China’s influence and undermined U.S. credibility as a committed ally. While the United States should not offer its allies unconditional support—Washington must have clearly defined and enforceable red lines—it must nonetheless be a committed partner despite political cycles that might contradict U.S. values.

The second pillar, “improving relations with emerging powers,” struck the right tone with its focus on India and emphasis on the Indo-Pacific. However, it assumed U.S.-China relations could be managed through various dialogues that would “create a context for disagreement and competition within rules and limits.” Yet, China only seeks to work through rules and limits when it suits its interests. Consequently, Beijing used the dialogue process to bog Washington down rather than make progress on actual issues. The U.S.was correct in reducing the plethora of dialogues to four specific areas: diplomatic and security; economics; law enforcement and cyber security; and social, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges. Expanding and strengthening similar high-level U.S. government exchanges with emerging Southeast Asian powers would be a useful tactic in keeping China’s attention focused on the Southeast Asia pivot and away from its more far-flung ambitions.  

Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership collapsed the economic statecraft pillar of the re-balance strategy and removed the most potent Southeast Asia policy weapon from the U.S. arsenal. Until it forms a coherent trade policy, Washington could instead find ways to help U.S. companies invest and compete for infrastructure development projects in the region. The plan to create a revenue neutral U.S. International Development Finance Corporation advanced by Senators Corker and Coons is a good start, as it would provide tools and incentives such as political risk insurance and currency guarantees, allowing U.S. companies to better compete in high risk markets.

The ASEAN-US 40th Anniversary commemorative Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

The rebalance strategy’s fourth pillar, “engaging with multilateral institutions,” has had mixed results. While the United States should participate in meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the highest level, overemphasizing the importance of ASEAN centrality and placing the burden on ASEAN to solve difficult regional issues discounts the enduring importance of the state itself. It also allows China to claim inconsequential victories when ASEAN is divided. It is true that ASEAN has created important rules and norms of behavior that have enmeshed both China and the United States in a Southeast Asian-led regional security architecture. However, while institutional rules and norms produce important compliance effects—breaking them leads to reputational costs at the very least—they are only useful when states choose to respect and follow them. Investing time and money ensuring Southeast Asian states are strong, prosperous, and independent will reap more enduring foreign policy successes than over-reliance on an important, but shaky, multilateral institution. 

The fifth pillar of the re-balance strategy, “support for universal values,” fell short of its intended goals. It is true that values like human rights and democracy “are an intrinsic part of American national identity” and should be “reflected in all diplomatic engagements, including with partners whom the United States disagrees.” There is also near-universal agreement within the United States government that stable democracy and respect for human rights will help countries become strong, independent, and prosperous. However, claiming that American-style democracy is a universal value, and that the concept of human rights is whatever the United States defines it to be, only reinforces the image of the U.S. as a revisionist power bent on regime change. This is not to say that Southeast Asian countries are indifferent to human rights issues or, as some Chinese scholars claim, that universal values do not exist. Nor does it imply the United States should refrain from calling out egregious human rights violations. Where support for universal values missed the mark was in its indifference to the cultural and historical nuances inherent to Asia and in its certainty Western style liberalism would be widely embraced and easily applicable to Asian institutions and values.   

The United States could instead focus resources on support for democratic institutions (media, parliaments, civil society, courts, etc.) and more commonly agreed upon values such as good governance (programs focused on anti-corruption, popular participation, government accountability, etc.). This approach will mean a politically difficult shift away from rhetoric pushing for democratization and instead focus on strengthening institutions necessary for a stable democracy should a country choose that path. In Southeast Asia, the U.S. goal should be to retain an ability to compete with China for influence; Washington should avoid appearing intent on transforming the region into liberal democracies. The U.S. system of representative government and inalienable rights is superior to China’s statist authoritarianism. In this competition of ideals and values, Washington will win.

The final pillar of the re-balance strategy was “increasing U.S. military presence,” something Kurt Campbell called “over-emphasized and [mis]characterized as the driver of U.S. policy.” This is especially true when viewed through the lens of big-military tactics such as troop rotations, ship visits, arms sales, and joint exercises. Yet, there are more subtle areas of military engagement that could benefit the United States and its Southeast Asian partners.

Soldiers marching during a celebration to mark Reunification Day in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. (Kham/Reuters)

Vietnam has hinted it wants to “bring guerrilla warfare to the sea,” and has begun “prioritizing elite swimming and diving for the purposes of conducting sabotage operations against enemy vessels.” Increased exchanges between U.S. Special Operations Forces and their regional counterparts would enhance the asymmetrical warfighting capabilities of select Southeast Asian countries. Of course, the irony (and inherent risks) of special operators teaching the Vietnamese how to fight an unconventional war might be a bitter political pill for Washington and Hanoi to swallow. However, the intention is not to teach the Vietnamese guerrilla tactics they likely invented. Rather, special operations forces would provide training in areas their Southeast Asian counterparts are weak—such as targeting, tactical intelligence sharing, drone warfare, communications, and air-land-sea integration—while at the same time absorbing local know-how that could be brought to bear should U.S. special operations units ever have to fight in the region. More importantly, these partnerships would enhance the U.S. military’s ability to wage unconventional warfare and cement relationships that could be used to counter China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities during a future conflict. 

Supporting this strategy are many different objectives and the tactics used to achieve them. It is important to note that while the Asia rebalance pillars were mostly strong, the broader strategy likely stagnated because some of the tactics and objectives, as noted above, were weak. It is also important to point out one necessary objective that must be addressed – modernizing offensive diplomacy. Diplomacy is critical to a successful foreign policy strategy. However, Foreign Service officers sometimes misunderstand their role, seeing a diplomat as someone out to create world peace, and falling into a mindset that they are overseas to help their host governments rather than help the United States win ideological, policy, and strategic battles.

 Unlike professional military education, which focuses not just on doctrine, but also strategy and the overall history of the profession of arms, Department of State training mostly teaches Foreign Service officers how to react. Yet, the profession of diplomacy goes back to the third millennium BCE, and, although it has been modified, “the institution of diplomacy retained in many respects its…underlying practices and forms down through the ages.” This great tradition is often lost on Foreign Service officers who go overseas to win friends but are given neither the training nor strategy to influence people. Ancient Persian diplomats were famous for using strategy, gold, and their massive army to avoid (or help win) conflicts. The Romans engaged in offensive diplomacy where they “voluntarily decided to employ other means to achieve something that they could have achieved by fighting.” George Kennan saw the need for strength in dealing with the Soviet Union and used the power of diplomatic reporting to influence Washington. United States diplomats can draw from this great tradition—in line with U.S. values and with minimal use of coercion—to achieve policy objectives. For example, in Southeast Asia, where powerful politicians rise to power on the backs of patronage networks, U.S. diplomats could identify influential clients of powerful political patrons and use them as additional pressure points, or leverage, in achieving objectives.  

A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919) depicting Roman senator Cicero (106-43 BC) denouncing the conspirator Catiline in the Roman senate. (Palazzo Madama, Rome)

Southeast Asia is a key arena for offensive diplomacy and is critical to ensuring the United States can compete in the international strategic marketplace. In this sense, the South China Sea is crucial to a functioning market. If China succeeds in forcing Southeast Asian countries to accommodate its maritime claims, it would become significantly easier for Beijing to establish a neo-tributary system where the United States is no longer able to compete in the marketplace of ideas. In defending this marketplace, traditional Southeast Asian deference to China should be understood, but must not collapse into bandwagoning or balancing. U.S. partners must remain free to pivot between differing ideals without fear of violence or coercion.

Maintaining an open marketplace of ideas will require a strategy that keeps Southeast Asia pivotal and independent. The tactics and objectives used to advance this strategy will be numerous and ever changing but modernizing the concept of offensive diplomacy will be essential. This will require a new approach to training Foreign Service officers that emphasizes history, strategy, and a revival of diplomatic reporting that seeks to influence, rather than simply inform, Washington. The U.S. unipolar moment may be over, but the offensive diplomacy of Secretary Marshall and George Kennan lives on, and with it, the ability to position the United States as a predominant economic, political, and cultural influence in Southeast Asia for decades to come.


Adam Fields is a U.S. Foreign Service officer. This article is adopted from his master’s thesis “Fishing for Sovereignty: Can Vietnam and the Philippines Avoid Conflict and Accommodation in the South China Sea?” The views expressed do not reflect those of the Department of State, Department of Defense, or National Defense University.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.



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