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How the US can avoid another foreign policy failure - in Southeast Asia

September 5, 2021 GMT

America’s “ignominious exit” from Afghanistan reflects, according to one US columnist, “the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking”. Although probably not as spectacular, another US foreign policy failure looms in Southeast Asia.

The United States is striving to enlist the support of Southeast Asian countries in its efforts to contain and constrain China. A major element of its strategy is to support their maritime disputes with China.

To bolster this, US Vice-President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam last month, after a July visit by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. In Singapore, Harris declared that the US “stands with our allies and partners in the face of (China’s) threats”. In Vietnam, she said: “We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims.”

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Specifically, she offered material and training assistance to enhance Vietnam’s maritime defensive capacity, as well as more visits by US warships.

But this strategy is based on false premises and wishful thinking. One false premise is that US commitment to Southeast Asia is judged in part on whether it defends the region’s maritime rights.

But Southeast Asia judges US involvement by its contribution to their interests ” not to broader US strategic interests. Only five of the 10 Asean members have South China Sea claims and they are wary of US military involvement. US reliability is also a concern.

Just before Harris’ visit, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh told the Chinese ambassador that Vietnam does not take sides. This was a warning against US hopes of winning over Vietnam in building a coalition against China.

Moreover, the claimants ” especially the forefront states of Vietnam and the Philippines ” cannot unite on these issues. No one wants to take the lead and most are unwilling to stand up to China.

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Indeed, Southeast Asia’s ability to move aggressively is limited by its economic exposure to China and the inability to really make China pay. Yet the US cannot hope to change China’s behaviour without the active participation of the claimant countries.

The US approach continues to put the military cart before the diplomatic horse. But is it worth American blood and treasure to defend others’ claims? In the wake of Vietnam and now Afghanistan, that is going to be a hard sell domestically ” and in the end, Americans are the final arbiters.

A US military approach will only beget tit-for-tat from China. The spiral of militarisation alarms Southeast Asian countries that would suffer in any conflict ” no one wants a US-China military clash.

There must be a way for the US to show defensive capability without forcing Southeast Asian countries to accept US military troops and assets. No nation wants to end up looking like a political puppet and an automatic target in a conflict.

To better understand the political risks of the US approach, let’s look at several scenarios.

Say, an element of the Philippine military provokes a clash with China’s military and the Philippines demands the US honours its mutual defence commitment. The US prevaricates, invoking the procedural provisions in their mutual defence treaty.

Alternatively, the US provides immediate military support. China ups the military ante. The Philippines cuts and runs ” both militarily and politically ” leaving the US to clean up the military and political mess with China.

In another variation, China compromises with the other claimants, leaving the US looking like an outside agitator. In any of these scenarios, US credibility would be shot.

Another scenario is that the US continues to build its military power in the region, only to have the very countries it is supposedly defending ask it to lighten up or even stand down.

They would all have their own reasons to do so, but common ones would be economic dependence on China and that China is a permanent part of the region that they would live with long after the US has left.

These states are desperately trying to avoid the more likely scenario ” a division and polarisation of the region. This would mean the emasculation ” if not the death ” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an exacerbation of historical animosities, and foreign influence and involvement in their already volatile domestic politics.

The US needs to rebuild in Southeast Asian countries the confidence that it respects them and their interests, and that it can and will handle its differences with China competently and peacefully.

The foundation for a policy that can avoid failure is simple. Consider and make policy with the short- and long-term interests of Southeast Asia on a par with those of the US.

If the approaches and agreements are truly in each other’s interests and voluntarily entered into, then trust and relations will greatly improve. In the long term, soft power produces much stronger international bonds than hard power.

The best that can be done with the South China Sea disputes is to manage them to prevent an outbreak of open conflict. Although there have been incidents over the years, the disputants have been successful in doing so.

The more outside powers such as the US get militarily involved, the more likely the disputes will spin out of control ” to the detriment of Southeast Asia.

US policymakers should beware of recommendations for US involvement in the South China Sea based on questionable assumptions and wishful thinking. Such caution may help avoid another US foreign policy failure.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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