Home SemasaGlobal Revitalising US diplomacy in South-East Asia

Revitalising US diplomacy in South-East Asia

by Adrian David

WASHINGTON, D.C., 24 APR –  The United States must enhance its public diplomacy efforts with Asean nations to counter China’s influence in the region.

Washington-based independent international relations researcher Luke C. Hahn believed on this approach as the United States struggled to maintain its influence in Southeast Asia, while China’s presence continued to expand.

Hahn, whose research focussed on East and Southeast Asian multilateralism and coalition building, felt that the US’ prestige in the region was affected owing to President Joe Biden’s absence from the ‘2023 Asean Annual Summit’ last September in Jakarta, Indonesia.

“To counter China’s influence and maintain favourable relationships with Asean nations, the United States must enhance its public diplomacy efforts.

“This could be through increasing the number of diplomats in the region, promoting existing military, economic and educational programmes, and establishing comprehensive security partnerships with key countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

“All these has to be done while respecting Asean’s centrality in the face of US-China competition,” opined Hahn.

Amid the intensification of US-China rivalry, Hahn felt that the United States had struggled to enhance its partnerships with Asean, enabling China to grow its presence in the region.

“To this end, the Biden administration should bolster its public diplomacy with Southeast Asia.

“Asean is a strategically and economically important region that the United States cannot afford to neglect. “Handling 40 per cent of merchandise trade globally, Southeast Asia is poised to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030.

“Its proximity to China and other security partners like India, Japan and Australia also make it strategically important, especially in the event of any future conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” Hahn said.

He added that the Biden administration’s diplomacy in the region had faced challenges, affecting the international prestige of the United States.

Hahn observed that although US Vice-President Kamala Harris attended the Asean Summit in Biden’s place to reaffirm US interest in Asean, the regional leaders were much disappointed.

He felt that Biden’s absence at the summit could be seen as a waning commitment by the United States to the Asean leadership.

“The United States must support Asean autonomy to counter Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, as the People’s Liberation Army’s efforts to disrupt Asean centrality could impact the global economy and threaten Asean’s regional security.

“Asean counters encroachment by fortifying itself through its multilateral and bilateral relations, ensuring that any impact on Asean is felt on both sides of the Pacific,” Hahn said.

He, however, stressed that the United States continued to support the Asean security apparatus, through measures such as the joint naval drill hosted in Indonesia last year, in response to security concerns in the North Natuna Sea.

“The United States recognises that it must continue to emphasise its presence as a reliable security partner.

“Since the September summit, the Biden administration has publicly bolstered its commitment to the region by emphasising the benefits of closer relations with Southeast Asia.

“Biden’s visit to Vietnam in September 2023 to establish a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ was viewed by Vietnamese media as an important step towards Vietnam and Southeast Asia’s goal of ‘a foreign policy of independence and self-reliance’,” Hahn said.

He pointed out that Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son reaffirmed this during his visit to Washington, DC last month, where he discussed the importance of his country’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ and the US-Vietnam relationship.

“This agreement was a major vote of confidence for the United States from an Asean member-state, strengthening US security engagement in the region.

“The United States also promotes relations through previously established programmes within the region. Including the ‘International Military Education and Training’ to promote its military commitment in the region. “There are also trade and education programmes like the ‘Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative’ and the ‘Asean-US Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement’.

“Yet many programmes remain largely unknown among Asean citizens due to a lack of publicity by the United States,” he said.

Hahn figured that the United States could do more to improve its public diplomacy with Asean and maintain favourable relationships in Southeast Asia amid rising US-China competition.

“Biden’s absence harmed his reliability as a leader in the international community.

“A failure to maintain a positive public image in the region can prevent the United States from future engagement with Southeast Asia,” Hahn said.

He highlighted how one diplomat stated: ‘Biden’s absence will be felt throughout, and it is a missed opportunity to cement gains as China grows more unpopular’.

“The United States must now strengthen its prior commitments to Southeast Asia while publicly promoting them to gain a favourable public consensus.

“Public diplomacy – defined by the US State Department as outreach and engagement that strengthens the relationship between the United States and the citizens of other countries – is vital.

“Both the United States and China must offer benefits without threatening Asean’s centrality.

“The challenge they face is acknowledging Asean’s balanced engagement with both powers while still trying to gain Asean’s favour.

“This challenge stems from Asean’s hedging strategy to ensure that Asean states do not have to ‘choose a side’ and can engage simultaneously with both powers with minimal consequences and maximum benefits,” Hahn said.

He highlighted how many security treaties and alliances between the United States and countries in the region – like the Quad and AUKUS – aimed to counter Chinese expansionism.

“But Asean needs space to hedge its relations and avoid rigid alliances to support the ‘centrality, agency and leadership of regional institutions’ and its members.

“The United States must not jeopardise Asean centrality when prioritising diplomatic efforts with these institutions.

“The Biden administration could bolster its public diplomacy strategies to raise trust with Southeast Asia. “This should include dramatically increasing the number of diplomats in Asean states to help construct a comprehensive diplomatic network.

“This network can promote key military, economic and educational projects between the United States and Asean while addressing the immediate needs of individual member states,” said Hahn.

He believed that though such a strategy might not eliminate China’s influence, it would ensure a firmer US presence.

“Washington should also establish more comprehensive security partnerships with strategically critical countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

“These two strategies may help strengthen US confidence among Asean citizens while building stronger regional ties. “But both are contingent on embracing regionalism despite ideological or political differences,” Hahn said.

He summarised that should former US President Donald Trump re-win the US presidential election in November and pursued a rigid ‘America First’ policy, the United States would likely lose important opportunities to engage with Asean. – airtimes.my

#AirTimes #Global #ASEAN #US

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