US Credibility in ASEAN in the Shadow of the Ukraine Conflict

On March 29, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited the Biden White House for the first time as the war in Ukraine raged on. Their conversations focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Indo-Pacific security. In a joint press release, U.S. President Joe Biden claimed the partnership between the United States and Singapore was “as close and as strong as it’s ever been,” while Lee noted , “Singapore deeply appreciates America’s commitment to engage Southeast Asia, and especially Singapore, despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.” Was Lee’s formulation implicitly questioning the credibility of Biden’s account of U.S.-ASEAN relations?

This high-profile visit is the latest in a series of U.S. meetings with key ASEAN leaders and high-level U.S. visits to the region in the latter half of 2021. The importance the administration places on these efforts underscores the invitation for ASEAN heads of state to attend a “U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit” at the White House on May 12-13.

The U.S. effort to “serve as a strong reliable partner in Southeast Asia” draws a line from former President Donald Trump’s reluctance to invest in fostering strategic commitments within the region. In 2021, the United States had 10 high-level engagements with Southeast Asia concentrated in the final five months, focusing on key ASEAN countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand and establishing new initiatives in the region. Lurking behind these visits is the threat to regional security posed by increasing Chinese influence and the militarization of islands in the South China Sea.

As regional tensions around the world escalate, however, the United States must balance its global commitments and the efficacy of these renewed U.S. efforts in ASEAN is increasingly called into question. Russia’s actions in Ukraine will undoubtedly test U.S. and NATO presence and strength in Finland, the Baltic states, and elsewhere within Eastern Europe. At the same time, China will likely use this opportunity to test U.S. commitments to East and Southeast Asia.

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How will the current crisis in U.S.-Russia-NATO relations impact the U.S. Indo-Pacific security strategy, which aims at countering the threat of Chinese regional dominance? This question is implicit in Lee’s statement to the press and provides the focal point of this piece.

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The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the North Atlantic in concrete ways and prompted a restructuring of NATO. It is worth recalling that even at the height of the Cold War it was the 250,000 U.S. troops in Germany and their prepositioned equipment and tactical nuclear weapons that provided the backbone for deterrence against the Soviets. Just as the Philippines relies on the United States to protect its interests in the South China Sea, Europe leans heavily on the U.S. given the reality of NATO’s downsizing over the past several decades. Until NATO reorientation efforts are fully achieved (and even after), it will be U.S. forces and presence that will need to step in.

The war in Ukraine has therefore spurred a reorientation not only of U.S. attention, but also of military assets. This has already begun to occur in important ways. The past few months have seen a major redeployment of U.S. forces in Europe as well as stepped up assistance to NATO states on Russia’s eastern border. Yet this reorientation toward NATO is occurring at the same time that a major revision of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is already underway to cope with increased Chinese ability to deny U.S. forces access to the South China Sea and its vital shipping routes.

This shift in Indo-Pacific strategy is predicated on the credibility of China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy to keep U.S. naval forces at a remote distance from the South China Sea and Taiwan. How this rethinking of Indo-Pacific strategy affects the U.S. ability to fight in the North Atlantic and Europe remains a second and difficult unanswered question. Protection of North Atlantic sealanes for NATO resupply was a foundational pillar in the U.S. Cold War strategy. The current navy plan reduces U.S. naval forces to a 280 ship navy by 2027 as opposed to the 350 ship goal , which poses this question ever more acutely from the ASEAN point of view. With a renewal of Russian submarine forces and in light of the pace of Chinese naval warship construction, will a 280-ship navy be able to cope until the distant day when the 350 ship goal is reached – if it is ever reached at all? ASEAN think tanks like RSIS in Singapore are undoubtedly conveying such concerns to political decision makers. Needless to say, these concerns extend beyond ASEAN and preoccupy U.S. Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea. Japan and Australia’s increasing investments in defense and expansion of their own military capabilities testify to such concerns.

As the United States significantly increases its commitment to NATO amid a major reorientation to the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN states remain preoccupied with one central question: Does the U.S. have the will to commit over the long term the necessary resources to support the Southeast Asia region and reflect its ASEAN priorities within its global security strategy?

From the ASEAN standpoint this question challenges the history of Washington “pivots” to and from the region and the inevitable shifts in policy as administrations and national security priorities change. As doubt on the answer to this question permeates the region, U.S. strategic interests are at growing risk. What is not in doubt from the ASEAN perspective is the long-term, historically rooted presence of China and the ability of Chinese decision makers to maintain political imperatives over decades. Chinese commitment to militarizing the South China Sea and the scale of the Belt and Road Initiative leave little doubt about this in the minds of ASEAN leaders. The question they face collectively and individually is how to respond to protect their national and regional interests.

In other words, the United States faces a strategic challenge on a scale not seen since the 1970s. American reorientation and deepening engagement with NATO have unsettled efforts and alliances in Southeast Asia. Regional fears of increasing Chinese influence add to the weight of the challenge to U.S. interests. In the case of ASEAN in particular, it is thus not just the commitment of military assets that will determine decisions by the constituent member states, but rather their perception of how long they will be able to count on American promises and commitments. From their standpoint, the U.S. track record is not good, and it will take more than a flurry of high-level visits to and from the region to provide the needed assurances.

What makes the development of an effective and coherent U.S. strategy toward ASEAN particularly challenging is both the range of positions among the 10 ASEAN member states regarding where they stand in the China-U.S. regional rivalry, as well as the shifting internal political developments within states such as the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar that impact their positions vis-à-vis the U.S. and China. One need only look at the flip-flops of the Duterte regime (and wonder where presidential front-runner Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will stand) or the warming up of the Thai junta to China to see the need for deep U.S. understanding of the national and regional dimensions that inform the way ASEAN and each of its member states see the Biden administration’s current engagement.

Every ASEAN member state, even those most leaning toward the United States, will shift their stance towards China if they have to, because, as they have repeatedly stated, China is their immediate neighbor, like it or not. For the U.S. to sustain the “friendship” of states like Singapore and to shift the position of the “fence sitters” in ways favorable to its interests, the long-term credibility of the U.S. commitment is essential and inescapably necessary. That is the reality of the region.

U.S. success in Southeast Asia will rely on a policy approach that doesn’t succumb to reactionary pivots, but rather acknowledges the need for sustained engagement in Southeast Asia that will be recognized as such by the different ASEAN member states for both short- and long-term strategic interests.

Lee concluded his joint statement with Biden by reminding that “[t]he U.S. has enduring strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific and many friends in the region who want you to stay actively and consistently engaged.” Lee’s comments echo a general sentiment of many Southeast Asian countries toward the Biden administration’s renewed engagement: a step in the right direction, but only a step. This “reminder” is clearly a warning of the potential for shifts away from the United States by those countries continually recalibrating their position between the two great powers.

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This concern among Southeast Asian countries raises the broader issues in U.S. foreign and defense policy described above. From the ASEAN perspective it is not that the U.S. pivot to Asia was dead on arrival, as many contend. Rather, it is that there should never have been a pivot to begin with.