The growing strategic and economic competition between China and the United States has prompted renewed U.S. attention to the nations of Southeast Asia, a region of 11 nations that sprawls at the center of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Yet, as Ambassador Scot Marciel details at length in his new book, “Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia” (Rowman & Littlefield), Southeast Asia remains poorly understood by many in Washington.
That’s certainly not true of Marciel, a U.S. diplomat who has spent a large part of his 35-year career based in and working on Southeast Asia. After an initial posting to the Philippines that coincided with the 1986 People Power revolt that overthrew President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Marciel would go on to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and as ambassador to Indonesia (2010-2013) and Myanmar (2016-2020), the latter at a time of great turbulence. These postings were preceded by a period during which he oversaw U.S. relations with Southeast Asia as principal deputy assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific at the U.S. State Department.
Marciel, now a member of the Southeast Asia program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, spoke with The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio about the recent trajectory of U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, the “enigma” that is ASEAN, and how Washington should approach a region that desires fruitful relations with the U.S., but is congenitally leery of superpower tensions.
In the introduction to the book, you write, “My friends in the region often talk about how the United States does not truly understand Southeast Asia or how to engage effectively with it. They are not wrong.” This is something that we have seen most recently with the response of some nations in the region, Indonesia chief among them, to the formation of AUKUS, which has been accused of stoking regional tensions. What do you think U.S. policymakers most often get wrong about Southeast Asia?
The AUKUS example highlights the high degree of sensitivity that many in Southeast Asia have toward major powers either raising the geopolitical stakes in the region or establishing mechanisms that might challenge what ASEAN considers its central role in regional diplomacy and security. The advent of the Quad is another example. It’s not that these initiatives were mistakes. Rather, they reflect a tendency that U.S. policymakers sometimes do not fully appreciate just how nervous such developments make Southeast Asian partners. Although I don’t know if this was the case with the AUKUS announcement, U.S. policymakers often assume that Southeast Asian governments will view U.S. foreign policy moves in the region as being as benign or even helpful as the United States sees them. This reflects Washington’s own view of itself as being on the “right side” of most issues, and a failure to recognize that some in Southeast Asia view the United States with some wariness, just as they do China.
The main point I was making in the quote you noted, however, was broader. U.S. policymakers, including me, have struggled for years to figure out how best to work with Southeast Asia as a region. This reflects both the lack of expertise (in academia and government) about the region and the inherent difficulty of dealing with a highly diverse group of countries that has neither a powerful central institution nor a dominant member that can speak on behalf of the members. Attending ASEAN meetings tends to be underwhelming, and visiting multiple Southeast Asian countries regularly is impractical for top officials. That reality, along with the sheer size and importance of some other countries in Asia, means that U.S. policymakers tend to focus on China, Japan, Korea, and India. Absent a major crisis, policy toward Southeast Asia tends to be a corollary of policies toward those major powers, most notably China. This leads to episodic engagement and excessive U.S. emphasis in those limited engagements on broader strategic concerns (i.e., China) rather than on issues of importance to Southeast Asians.
You argue that the U.S. approach toward Southeast Asia “cannot be simply a corollary of its China strategy,” with the implication that U.S. policy toward the region remains to some extent hostage to the increasingly confrontational relationship with Beijing. How can the U.S. convince the region that it is not bolstering its engagement only because of its concerns about China? And how would you assess the Biden administration’s approach on this front over the past two years?
The Biden administration’s approach on this front has been better than that of the Trump administration, which unabashedly made many if not most of its interactions with Southeast Asia about China. Although they probably still talk too much about China when they are in Southeast Asia, senior Biden administration officials and the President himself have made a greater effort to talk about U.S. cooperation with Southeast Asia. This is critical. Southeast Asians are fully aware of the benefits and costs of their relationships with China. They don’t need the United States to “educate” them, and U.S. officials should trust that they have agency in protecting their independence and sovereignty.
Rather than worry excessively about what China is doing in Southeast Asia, Washington should focus on building strong and durable partnerships with the region on its own merits, based on a positive agenda – trade, investment, climate change, health, education and security – and on building confidence in the region that the United States is committed to Southeast Asia long term. That means showing up consistently at all levels, implementing a substantive trade and investment agenda – whether via IPEF or other initiatives – and investing more in key issues that matter to the region. Building that strong partnership, without talking much about China, will ease regional concerns about why Washington is engaging. It also is the best way to bolster the freedom of maneuver of Southeast Asian nations, which should be a U.S. priority.
In the context of the growing strategic competition between China and the United States, the mantra that one often hears from Southeast Asian states is that they don’t want to be forced to choose between the two powers. Do you agree with this framing, and what are the implications for U.S. policy toward the region?
The framing has limited value, in the sense that no one is asking Southeast Asian states to choose between the two powers, and it is not even clear what “choosing” would mean in practical terms. That said, the broader message represented by this mantra is accurate: most if not all of the region wants to enjoy good relations with both China and the United States (as well as with other partners) and resents attempts by either power to pressure them to do otherwise.
The implication for U.S. policy is that the focus should not be on discouraging the countries from having good relations with China but rather on ensuring the United States is a good and reliable partner itself. That means not worrying too much when a Southeast Asian leader visits Beijing and celebrates close ties with China, or when a particular country seems to be leaning more toward China. That is going to happen at times. The United States should focus instead on making sure it is doing all it can to be a good partner with Southeast Asia. I’ll offer a specific example. Indonesia under President Jokowi has moved somewhat closer to China, which causes consternation in some quarters. Washington should not worry unduly about this, as Indonesia is fiercely independent and has moved closer to China in part because the Belt and Road Initiative is funding priority infrastructure projects in the archipelago. Rather, U.S. policymakers should consider what they can do to bolster their own relationship with Jakarta, without making it about China. Among other things, vigorously implementing the recently announced $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership would be a great way to do just that.
You served as the first U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization that you describe as an “enigma” and note has often been a subject of disappointment for many in Washington. What do you think U.S. officials fail to understand about ASEAN, and how can the U.S. work more constructively with it?
ASEAN has disappointed many not only in Washington but even in Southeast Asia. It is by design not a powerful, supranational organization, but rather a relatively loose association of countries that see the institution as a useful way to promote cooperation and avoid interstate tensions, amplify their collective voice, and discourage great power meddling. ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making and its practice of not interfering in member states’ domestic affairs render it largely incapable of bold action, whether on the South China Sea or during Myanmar’s current crisis. What U.S. policymakers sometimes don’t appreciate is that, for Southeast Asian governments, maintaining broad unity and relationships among member states, along with setting the agenda for the region, are essential priorities that make up for these weaknesses.
For the United States, it is important to accept ASEAN for what it is and to recognize that it still offers value. First, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there have been no inter-state conflicts among ASEAN member states in decades. Second, ASEAN is steadily making progress in reducing trade barriers between member states, making it a more compelling investment destination. Third, its annual meetings provide an excellent opportunity for senior U.S. officials to engage not only with ten Southeast Asian counterparts but also with key leaders from the region and the world. By showing up and engaging consistently at these meetings and supporting ASEAN’s own work, U.S. leaders bolster America’s relations with all ten ASEAN member countries and increase the region’s confidence that the United States is a reliable and good partner.
You write that since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has “tended to measure countries and adjust the quality of our relationships – including with our treaty allies – based on their progress, or lack thereof, on democratic and human rights grounds.” Given the prickly response that this has garnered from some leaders – Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia is perhaps the most obvious example from your book – do you think it is possible to pursue these moral and strategic goals in tandem? How can the U.S. balance these two imperatives?
Yes, I think it is possible to pursue both goals in tandem. It’s a matter of how we do so. Promoting democracy and human rights is an essential part of American diplomacy, and many in Southeast Asia appreciate our support for these goals. The problem is that some of the tools the United States has come to rely on to advance these goals – critical public statements and even grading of other countries, reducing or eliminating engagement with “offending” governments, and on occasion sanctions – have become both less effective and more obligatory, in the sense of U.S. domestic constituencies demanding their use. These tools might have worked to some extent when the United States was in ascendancy after the Cold War, but countries now have other choices and are increasingly critical of what they see as U.S. double standards.
This does not mean the United States should stop promoting human rights and democracy. Rather, Washington needs to recognize that the world has changed and adjust its tactics accordingly. That means accepting that public criticism isn’t always the best option, that sanctions rarely work, and that promoting democracy and human rights requires more nuance and humility. This will be more controversial, but it also means continuing to talk with the governments in question – while avoiding “business as usual” – in the face of setbacks, except in extreme circumstances such as the appalling junta in Myanmar now. I’m not advocating a 180-degree shift in approach, just some tactical adjustments to make U.S. efforts more effective and more in line with the realities of the world today.
Of the challenges facing Southeast Asia, none carries as much moral and political urgency as the conflict in Myanmar, where you served as ambassador from 2016 to 2020. How would you assess ASEAN’s approach to the crisis, and do you think the U.S. can best help the situation, given the extreme complexity of the conflict and the limitations imposed by China’s proximity?
I give ASEAN credit for trying, via the Five-Point Consensus of April 2021 and its unprecedented decision not to invite junta representatives to key ASEAN meetings. The Five-Point Consensus, however, has failed, both because of the junta’s refusal to compromise and because the consensus itself depended on the flawed assumptions that the generals were reasonable people and that the crisis could be resolved via a dialogue leading to a political compromise. The problem now is that ASEAN is divided and so cannot reach agreement on a different or bolder approach, which is why it continues to tout the Five-Point Consensus. While I hope Indonesia as ASEAN Chair will take more initiative, such as meeting publicly with the National Unity Government (NUG) and key ethnic groups and making clear that it will not accept the junta’s sham elections, I don’t see ASEAN as a whole acting decisively. That is why I have called for Washington to take more of a leadership role in supporting the pro-democracy forces, including through greater assistance and improved coordination with like-minded countries on sanctions.
One potential constraint on U.S. action is that Beijing seems to see U.S. support for the pro-democracy forces as somehow a threat to its interests, so greater U.S. support could result in China doubling down on its backing of the junta. Already, we see China pressing the ethnic resistance organizations in Myanmar’s northeast to strike a deal with the junta, which has a remarkable track record of not honoring such deals. China’s approach is unfortunate, as this is not or should not be a U.S.-China issue. Whatever government emerges out of this crisis is inevitably going to want and need to have reasonably good relations with China. I would assume that the NUG and others within the pro-democracy coalition are making this point regularly to Chinese officials. To the extent that U.S. and Chinese officials are talking about Myanmar, it would be useful for U.S. officials to emphasize that they also would welcome good relations between any future Myanmar government and China. In the end, the United States should step up its support for pro-democracy forces despite China’s concerns because those forces are the only hope for Myanmar to enjoy stability, peace, and prosperity.