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  • America Is Back?Opportunities and Obstacles to Restoring U.S. Credibility in Southeast Asia
  • Ann Marie Murphy (bio)

U.S. president Joe Biden has announced that "America is back," and in contrast to his predecessor's unilateral and transactional "America first" policy, he has sought to assure world leaders of the U.S. commitment to multilateralism and renewed engagement with allies and partners. The Biden administration, however, has taken office at a time when Southeast Asian perceptions of U.S. power have declined dramatically. According to the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's "State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report," 49% of Southeast Asian elites view China as the region's most influential political and strategic power compared to only 30% for the United States, a marked shift from a decade ago.1 Rising Southeast Asian concerns about China's growing economic and strategic influence, combined with a desire for assistance in overcoming the Covid-19 health and economic crises, create opportunities for the Biden administration to enhance ties in the region. At the same time, long-standing concerns about U.S. commitment to the region and a fear that the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry will pressure Southeast Asian states to choose sides are key obstacles to strengthening ties. China is the largest trading partner of most Southeast Asian states and a leading source of investment across the region. Leaders seeking to maintain their strategic autonomy in an increasingly complex external environment may welcome the Biden administration's pledge of renewed attention and support for allies and partners, but no state wants to be forced into a binary choice between Washington and Beijing.

This essay analyzes the opportunities and obstacles facing the Biden administration as it seeks to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian states as part of its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. The essay begins by briefly outlining the trajectory of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia over the past decade, tracing the shift from the Obama administration's "rebalance" [End Page 66] policy to the Trump administration's "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy to illustrate which aspects of each policy were welcome in Southeast Asia and why. It then outlines the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific policy, Southeast Asia's place within it, and U.S. diplomatic efforts toward the region to date. The Biden administration got off to a slow start engaging Southeast Asia, and there is a distinct perception that the Quad rather than the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the preferred vehicle for engagement. At a time when promoting health security and economic recovery are Southeast Asia's key interests, vaccine diplomacy provides an opportunity for the United States, while the lack of a trade strategy is an obstacle. Southeast Asian countries are mostly keen to enhance ties with the United States but also do not wish to be seen as joining a U.S.-sponsored anti-China containment policy.

U.S. Policy Shifts Generate Southeast Asian Concerns about U.S. Commitment

Southeast Asian states have long perceived their relationship with the United States as one of ambivalent engagement because U.S. policy toward the region has undergone dramatic shifts over time, raising concerns regarding Washington's commitment. The Obama administration's rebalance policy was designed to address these fears by refocusing foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia. The rebalance policy was multifaceted: it had a security component that called for increasing the U.S. naval presence in the region; an economic component, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); and a multilateral component that embraced regional ASEAN-led architecture. Southeast Asian countries largely welcomed the rebalance because it appeared to illustrate Washington's commitment to play its traditional offshore balancing role, increase economic cooperation, and enhance ASEAN centrality, all of which help maintain an overall power balance in Asia and give smaller states more economic and strategic options. In the end, many contend that the rebalance failed to deliver because of the Obama administration's reluctance to respond to China's assertive actions, such as its 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and construction and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The Trump administration's...