Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?
By Mark J. Valencia

Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?

Aug. 14, 2017  |     |  0 comments

For 70 years the United States has dominated Southeast Asia with both hard and soft power — the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. Just a few years ago, US soft power was strong in the region. While its hard power is still dominant and may even grow, its soft power seems to have declined. This decrease is both absolute and relative to that of China — the awakening giant next door to Southeast Asia.

From August 2-8, 2017, ASEAN leaders and their dialogue partners, including China and the US, held a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. The South China Sea issues were a prominent focus. The results of these meetings indicated a new low in US diplomatic influence.

The South China Sea issues are important in themselves but one should always be aware of the context in which they are embedded — the contest between China and the US for dominance in the region. This fundamental security dilemma has now become plain for all to see — an increasingly aggressive China eroding a US-led status quo with an increasingly divided and irrelevant ASEAN. At these meetings, the South China Sea issues were the foil for this titanic geopolitical struggle.

After some delay reflecting sharp disagreement within ASEAN, the resulting joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting strongly favored China’s preferences over its opponents within ASEAN as well as those of the US. Indeed, according to Philippines analyst Richard Heydarian, “Overall it’s a slam dunk diplomatic victory for China.”

The run up to these annual ASEAN security meetings was marked by heavy diplomatic lobbying by both China and the US for their preferences. China wanted no discussion or even any reference to its claims or activities in the South China Sea or to the 2016 arbitration ruling against them. It also did not support any reference to the need for a “legally binding” Code of Conduct (COC) between it, ASEAN and its members. The US strongly supported implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision, as well as a goal of a robust, legally binding COC.

China’s possible legal rationales for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea were rejected by the international arbitration panel. Yet China apparently still claims the nine-dash line or Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) from features it occupies in the Spratlys and has threatened to use force to back its claim. The US argued that this is a violation of the existing international law and order — which it helped build and still asymmetrically benefits from.  Moreover, the US, Japan and Vietnam tried to use China’s threats and actions to attempt to unite ASEAN against China — at least on this set of issues.

But the approved ASEAN-China agreed framework for negotiation of a COC did not mention the need to have it be legally binding, enforceable or contain a dispute resolution mechanism. Nor did the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ joint communique refer to the arbitration decision. Vietnam, with the US preference in the background, did manage to have a phrase included that “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states…” and another that “took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” They also reaffirmed the need to “pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.” This wording is far less robust and China-specific than Vietnam and the US and its allies preferred. Indeed, it is sufficiently vague that China and its supporters within ASEAN could live with it. After all, it could and would apply to other claimants and even the US as well.

Some of these phrases were repeated and embellished in the ASEAN-PLUS Three (China, Japan, and South Korea), the East ASEAN Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting statements. But these are all chairman’s statements of ASEAN-PLUS meetings and not a consensus joint statement by ASEAN members alone.

Southeast Asia analyst Michael Vatikiotos called the framework agreement a quid pro quo, “the de-escalation [by ASEAN] in exchange for a not satisfactory for many people but nonetheless a framework.” Jay Batongbacal, a Philippine analyst, attributed the agreement on the framework “to a combination of the ASEAN’s inability to come to clear consensus, China’s perceived power, fear of economic consequences, failure of the US to give strong credible guarantees, and individual leadership perceptions.” Some critics said an ambiguous and thin framework means China can drag out the COC negotiations and also say “see, we’ve been negotiating with you.” More worrying, China appeared to set conditions for negotiations on a COC, including non-interference by “outside parties” meaning the US.

The relative decline in US soft power accelerated when the Trump administration withdrew from the US proposed Trans Pacific Partnership economic pact.

Although the US, Japan and Australia did not get the result that they wanted in the ASEAN communique, they doubled down with their own ministers’ statement.

The ministers underscored the importance of upholding the rules-based order. They voiced their strong opposition “to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.” They also urged “SCS claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features, and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment in areas pending delimitation”.

Further, the ministers called on all claimants to make and clarify their maritime claims in accordance with the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law. The ministers also “urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”

But in the most controversial portion of their statement, they called on “China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties.” This was much stronger wording than ASEAN, and China, preferred. Indeed, Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano said in apparent response, “We appreciate not being told what to do.”

Cambodia and the Philippines generally supported China’s preferences while the rest of ASEAN was largely non-committal. Obviously, ASEAN was split on the South China Sea, much to China’s advantage and much to the US’ chagrin. Asia analyst Bonnie Glaser said, “With ASEAN itself divided and China’s sway over individual ASEAN members growing, this is an unsurprising even if disappointing development”.

The prognosis for non-interference by the US in the COC negotiation process is not good.  Proposed legislation — the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act — would “strengthen US security commitments to […] allies and build partner capacity in the Asia-Pacific region to deter aggression [and] project power.” This will be done by increasing the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, including regular freedom-of-navigation and overflight operations in the East and South China Seas, and greater assistance helping allies and partners build more capable maritime forces. Furthermore, Washington will help establish “new regional security partnerships” and develop a greater relationship with Taiwan.

Expanding the military capabilities of allies and partners, and an increased US presence and the promotion of stronger regional security relationships, will not ease tensions between China and the US and its allies. Moreover, a more aggressive US posture and presence could force regional nations to choose between the two. The US may not like the outcome.

Making matters worse, China President Xi Jinping seems to have now publicly declared a red line in the South China Sea. During his speech commemorating the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, he vowed that China “will never allow any people, organization or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time, in any form.”

If the outcome of these ASEAN meetings were the only concern, it could and probably should be dismissed as a blip in the US-ASEAN relationship. But it comes against a broad background of US soft power setbacks in the region.

The relative decline in US soft power accelerated when the Trump administration withdrew from the US proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic pact. Then Trump seemed to be willing to make a deal with China — if China helped restrain North Korea, the US would lessen pressure on China in the South China Sea. To ASEAN nations, Trump’s “America First” mantra is beginning to feel to allies, friends and their enemies more like “you are on your own.”

Also eroding trust and confidence in the US, the Philippines under new President Rodrigo Duterte moved toward a more neutral stance between China and the US. Despite the 65-year-old US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, the Philippines was not sure the US would back it militarily in a conflict with China. Indeed, Duterte criticized America for pushing the Philippines to raise the arbitral tribunal ruling with China when it did not send troops to help protect its islands in the South China Sea from Beijing reclamation activities.

The Philippines is increasingly reluctant to allow the US to use its territory to “deter” China or to jointly exercise with it in the South China Sea. US allies Australia, Japan and the Philippines have so far declined US requests to join its freedom of navigation operations against China’s claims. Even Indonesia expressed disapproval over US “power projection” in the South China Sea. US relations with Thailand have not been close since the military coup there in 2014 and it seems to be leaning towards China. The same with Malaysia since the US took a legal interest in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s international financial dealings.

According to Bill Hayton of Chatham House, “[ASEAN leaders] are increasingly unlikely to take risks with China, including challenging China’s activities in the disputed areas.” This loss of confidence clearly erodes US soft power and weakens ASEAN’s bargaining position vis-à-vis China.

In sum, the US is discovering the hard way that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are shallower and more ephemeral than it thought. The Trump administration needs to urgently enhance its soft power commitments in the region if it hopes to stem or even keep pace with China’s growing influence.

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