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Balancing Acts in U.S. Southeast Asia Policy

A photo of Lucas Myers speaking at a conference with the Wilson Center logo in the background.

U.S.-Thai relations are as complicated as any in Southeast Asia. Bangkok’s 2014 coup and subsequent democratic decline damaged ties with the United States, and its growing economic and security convergence with Beijing deepened China-Thai relations. But, Thailand remains a U.S. treaty ally and economic partner within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thailand still values U.S. arms and its longstanding alliance, and Bangkok likely hopes to avoid overdependence on China.

In a sign of positive renewal, the United States and Thailand signed a Communique on Strategic Partnership on July 10th to follow up on Bangkok’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and a fewpositive high-level visits. The language used in the communique is revealing for its treatment of fundamental U.S.-Thai disagreements.

The communique frames the U.S.-Thai alliance as “forged by shared history and common values, and anchored by our collective commitment to build resilient, inclusive democracies and advance human rights.” It goes on to promote a joint intention to “adhere to core principles,” including:

"Promoting democratic development in an open and transparent way is essential to implementing our shared vision of an Indo-Pacific that is free, open, inclusive and sustainable. Strong democratic institutions, independent civil society, and free and fair elections are central to this vision, allowing our respective societies to reach their full potential. We intend to strengthen our shared values and ideals, including the rule of law; protecting human rights and human security; adhering to humanitarian principles, including non-refoulement; promoting sustainable development; and upholding resilient democracies."

With its language on shared values, the document carefully avoids airing disagreements on the issues of democracy and human rights that have hampered U.S.-Thai relations since 2014, such as the Thai government’s questionable commitment to democracy and its ambivalence about countering Myanmar’s 2021 military coup.

Southeast Asia may be a growing and vibrant region increasingly central to the global economy, but the primary driver of renewed U.S. interest in this region is countering Beijing’s rising influence.

Who is not mentioned in the communique is also telling: China. Southeast Asia may be a growing and vibrant region increasingly central to the global economy, but the primary driver of renewed U.S. interest in this region is countering Beijing’s rising influence. Washington is especially concerned over Thailand’s deepening relations with China. But, in a bid to avoid putting Thailand in a politically unpalatable spot that would have likely sunk the agreement, the text scrupulously avoids naming China.

From a wider lens, the communique demonstrates Washington’s two balancing acts in Southeast Asia: one, promoting values while advancing strategic national interests, and two, threading the needle on building a counter-China coalition without alienating a region that prefers non-alignment. Getting this balance right is something U.S. policymakers are actively calibrating. The rhetoric in the communique and more fully in the 2022 National Security Strategy reflect a recent effort to recalibrate on these axes and achieve a temporary “balance” in Southeast Asia before events demand shifts once again. What constitutes an optimal approach in U.S. foreign policy will shift in the future, and Washington has to live with some contradictions and adapt according to the prevailing circumstances of the day without becoming overly passive, lest it risk alienating allies and partners in the region.

Values and Realpolitik

Complicating U.S.-Thai relations, Thailand remains dominated by the royalist military-backed governing coalition of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the instigator of the 2014 coup. The 2019 election was widely criticized as unfair, and the constitution—and recent electoral changesfavors the military elite. In recent years, the Thai government has cracked down harshly on a widespread protest movement.

Considering the recent Constitutional Court decision that first suspended Prayuth but ultimately rejected the opposition’s claims that he over-extended his stay in office, it is unlikely that elections in 2023 will be “fair” for non-military-backed parties. The deck is simply too constitutionally stacked against them. Although not as authoritarian as some of its other mainland Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand ranks as “unfree” according to Freedom House and a “flawed democracy” in the Economist’s Democracy Index. Nevertheless, Thailand remains a treaty ally of the United States and a strategic player in the region. It may not agree with Thailand’s domestic policies, but Washington recognizes the need to work with it.

U.S. efforts to foster relations with autocratic or semi-democratic regimes extend beyond Thailand to arguably every Southeast Asian country apart from the junta in Myanmar. The Philippines, a key U.S. treaty ally with a crucial military access agreement, recently elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of its onetime dictator, as its president for a six year term. Soon thereafter the United States conducted successful diplomatic outreach, and President Biden met with President Marcos in New York, thus signaling positive improvements to the U.S.-Philippine relationship. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Vietnam constitutes one of the closest U.S. security partners in spite of its Communist government’s repression, while key regional partner Singapore has long practiced a softer form of authoritarianism. Last year’s ASEAN Chair Brunei is an absolute monarchy, and the authoritarian governments in Cambodia and Laos have both received attention from Washington in recent months to counteract Chinese influence. Malaysia and Indonesia meanwhile are more democratic than their neighbors but both have their own challenges with corruption and struggling institutions.

As a result of this regime-type diversity, Southeast Asia does not view the world in ideological terms, which can complicate the U.S. refrain of “democracies versus autocracies.” The Summit for Democracy perhaps best exemplifies the occasional awkwardness that can arise from U.S. efforts to promote democracy. The administration only invited three countries from ASEAN, which left out the other ASEAN states due to their more autocratic governments.

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. efforts to appeal to autocratic allies and partners can conflict with its democracy and human rights agenda. For instance, its attempts to roll back the coup in Myanmar have thus far remained limited in scope. Despite increasing pressure to do so, Washington has refrained from sanctioning the military-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, likely out of concern for angering Thailand, which is tightly connected to Myanmar’s energy sector.

China and Alignment

Further complicating matters, U.S. policy in Southeast Asia encourages ASEAN countries to push back against Beijing, but Washington must remain mindful of the region’s preference for non-alignment. While many Southeast Asian capitals recognize the threat posed by a militarily and economically dominant China, it is also a vital trade partner and source of much-needed investment, one that the United States struggles to match.

Bangkok’s authoritarian leaders do not see China as a military threat, but rather an important partner. Over the past two decades, China and Thailand have grown increasingly close, both economically and in the security realm, largely at the expense of ties to the United States. This trend accelerated following Thailand’s 2014 coup and the downturn in U.S.-Bangkok relations. Today, China continues to invest heavily in Thailand, compete with U.S. arms sales, and work closely with the ruling military-backed government.

Others in Southeast Asia, even those at a more obvious threat from Beijing than Thailand, are similarly loath to incur China’s wrath. Vietnam diligently avoids talk of outright alignment with Washington and prefers to keep bilateral initiatives quiet. Singapore commonly emphasizes the need to avoid exacerbating regional tensions between the United States and China, especially as Beijing remains the main trading partner throughout Southeast Asia. When the United States rolled out the AUKUS security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom, some in Southeast Asia raised public concerns about the securitization of the region and the risk that competing multilateral initiatives, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, undermine ASEAN’s centrality.

China will always be Southeast Asia’s neighbor, while the United States is far away.

On a fundamental economic level, Beijing’s investments remain attractive to developing countries due in part to the paucity of U.S. alternatives and despite the many clear risks that China’s Belt and Road Initiative poses to heavily indebted countries like Laos. More importantly, China will always be Southeast Asia’s neighbor, while the United States is far away.

The challenge facing U.S. policymakers is therefore how to avoid alienating allies and partners who prefer to hedge during a period of heightened great power competition. Public alignment with Washington against Beijing is politically difficult for Southeast Asia, even for the countries that are most welcoming towards U.S. involvement. At the same time, it is also undeniable that Beijing’s growing threat and dominance are the chief reasons for U.S. engagement and attention, and American naming-and-shaming of China’s coercive behaviors is necessary.

The July 2022 communique with Thailand points towards one avenue of achieving balance: avoid mentioning China when necessary while still countering Beijing’s moves. The U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy similarly minimizes references to China (mentioning it only once) despite its clear role in countering Chinese moves in Oceania, such as Beijing’s recent Solomon Islands security agreement.

Yet, remaining silent on China runs the risk of ignoring the elephant in the room and failing to signal strong responses to Chinese transgressions. Indeed, Washington must regularly and publicly reinforce its credibility in the region and demonstrate to its allies and partners that it will support them against Beijing, such as in the South China Sea. Calling out Chinese coercion is often necessary, regardless of how it may ruffle regional governments.

A Recalibration in Southeast Asia in the National Security Strategy

As seen with the U.S.-Thai communique, a recalibration on the two balancing acts after the Biden administration's first-year emphasis on "democracy versus authoritarianism" is increasingly apparent in the administration’s approach, most notably in the new National Security Strategy. The text works to complicate the Biden administration’s emphasis on “democracy versus authoritarianism”: “Americans will support universal human rights and stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity…We do not, however, believe that governments and societies everywhere must be remade in America’s image for us to be secure.” It carefully distinguishes between “powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy” and non-revisionist autocrats by highlighting that “many non-democracies join the world’s democracies in forswearing these behaviors." It thus divides the world into revisionist autocrats led by China and Russia and democracies and non-revisionist authoritarians in favor of a rules-based order. This move, if successful, opens up more space for collaboration with autocratic allies and partners like Vietnam and Thailand.

On the great power competition and alignment issue, the strategy acknowledges that “some parts of the world are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies. We understand these concerns. We also want to avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs. We do not seek conflict or a new Cold War.” It recognizes that Russia and China share some common interests with other countries, and specifies that the United States and China can “coexist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together.” Clearly, it hopes to reassure many in the Global South that U.S.-China competition will not be totalizing nor will it undermine efforts to address climate change.

Whether the current rebalance works long-term remains to be seen. Autocratic governments could interpret the National Security Strategy’s goal of “an order that is free in that it allows people to enjoy their basic, universal rights, and freedoms” as a long-term domestic security risk, as China does, regardless of U.S. attempts to distinguish between revisionists and non-revisionist actors. Moreover, American support for civil society and human rights must and will continue, and regional democratic backsliding, most notably the coup in Myanmar, demands attention. Regarding alignment, the Biden administration’s rollout of restrictions on Chinese technology acquisition essentially declares a new Cold War, even if the National Security Strategy attests to the opposite. At some point, U.S. cooperation with Beijing may become politically impossible and it may start demanding more of Southeast Asia.

The United States may aim to carefully calibrate its narratives and policies to garner the widest support in the region, but Southeast Asian states will continue to balance between China and the United States according to their own interests.

Importantly, there are simply limits to Washington’s ability to persuade the region. Thailand’s own balancing continues despite the apparent improvement in its relations with America. For instance, Bangkok proceeded in August 2022 with an annual air force exercise with China’s People’s Liberation Army amidst the backdrop of the crisis over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Notably, Thailand’s official statement on the crisis reiterated its “One China Policy” and called for “utmost restraint,” reflecting Bangkok’s neutral stance between Beijing and Washington. Furthermore, Thailand’s decision to abstain in an October UN vote on the war in Ukraine is but the latest sign of its reticence towards alienating Russia and China. The United States may aim to carefully calibrate its narratives and policies to garner the widest support in the region, but Southeast Asian states will continue to balance between China and the United States according to their own interests.

This is especially so if the United States fails to back up its words with material actions to increase and maintain focus on Southeast Asia. Many in the Indo-Pacific question America’s long-term commitment, especially in the economic realm. Indeed, reports that President Biden may be unable to attend the Thailand-hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leader’s meeting in November 2022 will likely be perceived as a sign of American neglect in Bangkok and the wider region. This is especially true if President Xi Jinping attends after his demonstrated willingness to travel abroad again and the 20th Communist Party Congress. Without a high tempo of engagements and initiatives attractive to the region, it will not matter if Washington calibrates the balancing acts correctly on a narrative level.

In an increasingly multipolar world where great power competition is seldom as ideological as rhetoric suggests, or welcomed by countries who fear being caught up in the conflagration, America’s two balancing acts will continue, as well as a need for regular recalibration. It must both defend democracy and human rights and work with autocratic allies and partners. Washington must also counter China publicly and privately without driving regional capitals away. There is no perfect formula or absolutely persuasive narrative, but rather a complex region on China’s doorstep replete with hedging, competing interests, and demands for greater U.S. involvement.

The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. 

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About the Author

A photo of Lucas Myers speaking at a conference with the Wilson Center logo in the background.

Lucas Myers

Senior Associate for Southeast Asia, Indo-Pacific Program
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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more