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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Orson Tan

Speaking with Understanding: How the United States can communicate with Southeast Asia

For too long, it seems that the United States has had an issue with its messaging in Southeast Asia, being unable to assure its ASEAN partners of its commitment to the region. Lloyd Austin's speech at the 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue seems to mark a change in this trend, and provides a template for the US to follow.

Photo credit: Freddie Everett/State Department

“The United States can be secure only if Asia is”. When US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin uttered this line on Saturday, June 1, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, it marked a watershed moment in American messaging to the region. Make no mistake, the crux of Austin’s speech has remained the same; that the United States is committed to the region and will not be decreasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific, or as Austin says, “The United States is deeply committed to the Indo-Pacific. We are all in. And we're not going anywhere”.  Across the three years of Shangri-La Dialogues that he has spoken at, and the 2021 Institute for Strategic Studies Fullerton Lecture that he gave in lieu of the Dialogue that year, Austin has been keen to reiterate and emphasize that the United States was a committed partner of the region, trumpeting a “shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Yet that message has failed to gain traction in Southeast Asia. In the 2019 State of Southeast Asia report, 34.6% of respondents indicated little to no confidence in the US as a strategic partner of the region, compared to 31.9% that indicated some to full confidence. In the subsequent years, the survey changed its question to how the regional political and strategic influence of the US was perceived, with the US being seen as lagging behind China in influence in the region, and the number of respondents who indicated that they welcome US influence in Southeast Asia has steadily declined; from 62.6% in 2022, to 41% in 2024. The reasons for the decline are numerous, but at the forefront is the worry amongst the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states that the US is a retreating power, one which is increasingly distracted by the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, who despite constant assurances of their commitment to the region, have a history of easily forgetting this commitment.

It is for this exact reason that Austin’s statement at Shangri-La is so important. While the US had previously made similar assurances and spoken of its “enduring commitment” to Southeast Asia, these messages have often painted a picture of a relatively unequal partnership. The United States has come across as the hegemon that is in the region to provide a service, that of security and stability, without any real skin in the game. It is true that there are the oft-repeat platitudes to the US being a Pacific nation, or the long-term friendship between the US and ASEAN, but for observers in Southeast Asia, it has often felt like the US was speaking without understanding, especially when US officials continue to speak of shared values that ring hollow for the region. Biden’s decision to skip the 11th US-ASEAN summit in 2023 and send Vice President Kamala Harris further reinforces this image of the US as a transient partner, someone who speaks of commitment but does not walk the talk.

Furthermore, the US cannot fall back on an image of a invested economic partner, with the Biden administration being accused of lacking a viable economic strategy for Southeast Asia. The US has not sought to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which is a 11-member multilateral agreement nor the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which lays claim to being the world’s largest multilateral trading pact. Instead, Biden has chosen to promote the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which hardly constitutes a trading pact but more of an agreement to pursue economic growth together. ASEAN attitudes towards IPEF reflect the paucity of what the agreement offers, with positive sentiments towards IPEF declining from 46.5% in 2023 to 40.4% in 2024. In fact, with almost 45% of respondents indicating that they were unsure what IPEF would bring to ASEAN, it highlights how, two years on from the initial announcement, many in the region still don’t know what IPEF is.

Understandably, the Biden administration has chosen to push IPEF due to the reluctance to offer market access, which is a highly charged domestic political issue in the US, and thus making it impossible for them to pursue the joining of CPTPP or RCEP. However, market access is what the Southeast Asian countries want, not only because it provides more opportunities for their economic growth, but also because it further signals the US’s commitment to the region, by embedding the US as a key trading partner. Despite this, US representatives across the mission often seek to highlight the growing trade numbers between the US and the countries they are stationed in, without understanding that growing trade numbers mean nothing when the US market remains closed to these countries. The image of the US remains one of a transient partner who can easily pack up and leave.

Austin’s statement then is a welcome evolution in US messaging. For the first time, it highlights how the US and Asia is tied at the hip and effectively communicates that the US does in fact have skin in the game. If the security and stability in the region is seen as a national security issue for the US, then the likelihood that the US will only be a transient power providing a service is greatly decreased. It reflects a deeper understanding of not only the US’s role in the region, but also the importance of the region to the US and would certainly have been well-received by ASEAN and some of its member states. Reinforcing this message is a necessary next step for US diplomatic missions in Southeast Asia in order to reverse the trend of declining trust in the US; in talking about strengthening its various alliances and partnerships around the region, be it the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral or the Quad, or most importantly, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership it has with ASEAN, the US will have to continue to frame it as a matter of its own national security in order to assure the region that it will not retreat.

Additionally, the messaging surround the US economic engagement in Southeast Asia needs to change. The reality of the economic terrain in the region means that the United States will never be the largest trading partner of the ASEAN states, and the constraints of domestic politics means that market access is off the table. It would be ideal if Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen would come out and say something along the lines of Austin’s statement, “The US can only prosper if Asia prospers” or something similar, but barring that, the US should focus its economic message on investment and not trade. Biden announced in 2022 that the US would be putting $825 million into Southeast Asia, additionally, as part of IPEF, the US is launching an Investment Accelerator through their Partnership for the Global Infrastructure and Investment. These are the messages that needs to be broadcast through the region, that the United States is not only present but actively investing in the future of the Southeast Asian countries, providing an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative for capital investments that majority of these countries need, and that American investment is a credible signal of its enduring commitment to the region.

At the end of the day, Austin’s statement at Shangri-La was a good start, but the US has a long way to go to change its image of a transient power with no skin in the game. The proverbial ball is in its court to prove to Southeast Asia that after years of talk, they are finally here to stay.


DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Orson Tan is senior research fellow at the Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs, and has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.



Giving voice to the Indo-Pacific

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