Seeking Serenity: A New American Influence Strategy for Southeast Asia and Beyond

matthews meisel

“I think it’s unbelievably expensive, unnecessarily provocative, and also in the modern era of warfare, pretty much impossible,” said Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, of some of the possible China policies kicking around Washington. “I am worried that we are running towards the idea that the only way to deal with China is to build a military that is large enough to dominate them … I think that’s a mistake.” Assuming that Smith is right about a militarized approach being a mistake, what are U.S. policymakers to do in responding to challenges posed by China, particularly in Southeast Asia, where China’s military, economic, and diplomatic influence continue to surge?

We propose a Serenity Prayer-type approach: accepting the relationships that U.S. policymakers cannot change, refocusing on the relationships they can change, and having the wisdom to know the difference. This means de-prioritizing bilateral relationships in countries predominately influenced by China, focusing more intentionally on strategically important relationships with countries where China has approached the United States as a peer competitor, and supporting the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) so the organization can wield the intraregional influence and autonomy that the United States, realistically, can’t.



Accepting What Will Not Change

The approach we propose begins with accepting that China’s dominance in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar is unlikely to be substantially diminished in the near future. As such, U.S. policymakers should cede this ground to better focus material allocations elsewhere.

Although goods exports from Cambodia to the United States have grown significantly in recent decades, the absolute total was only three-quarters that of Cambodia’s goods imports from China as of 2019, which translates to a sizeable gap in total trade. U.S. foreign aid has been substantial, but China commits more humanitarian assistance to Cambodia than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. China is also by far Cambodia’s most significant provider of arms transfers (the United States sends none).

To assess and compare these shared political, security, and economic interdependencies, we rely on the Formal Bilateral Influence Capacity Index. The index is a composite measurement of influence capacity between states developed by our team at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, informed by surveys of U.S. government analysts, and soon to be launched in a forthcoming report in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative. Returning to the previous case using our index, we find that the sum of Chinese formal bilateral influence capacity — roughly, its potential influence — in Cambodia was triple that of the United States as of 2020.

In Laos, disparities between U.S. and Chinese influence capacities are even more apparent. China enjoys nearly 20 times the level of trade in goods and services with Laos relative to the United States. China’s arms transfers to Laos are also significant, though outpaced by Russia. And while U.S. foreign aid is substantial, it fails to compete with other official financial flows from China. The result in 2020 was a more than 20-to-1 Chinese advantage compared to the United States, according to the influence index.

Figures are similar in Myanmar, where neither the process of democratization over the past decade nor the tumult of recent months have altered the country’s trade interdependencies with China. Indeed, they remain robust and are likely to grow along with other ties, despite the recent coup d’état. Once again, we find that our influence index depicts a situation in 2020 where China’s sum of influence capacity greatly outweighs that of the United States.

Taken together, these glaring imbalances in Chinese macro-level instruments of influence relative to the United States highlight the existence of what we call China-dominant states. Although more subtle means of influence surely exist, any attempts to compete on these playing fields that are so clearly tilted in China’s favor would, to paraphrase Smith, be an unbelievably expensive, pretty much impossible mistake.

Influencing Relationships That Can Be Changed

However, outside of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, the situation is more promising. One of the most strategically important states in Southeast Asia also happens, according to the index, to fall within a group of U.S.-dominant states: the trade hub of Singapore.

Although Singapore continues to maintain its position of strategic non-alignment, the U.S. State Department describes its longstanding mutual security and economic partnerships with the country as “expansive and enduring.” In a recent survey of ASEAN member states, around eight in ten respondents welcomed deeper connections to the United States, with Singaporean respondents going so far as to describe U.S. and Chinese influence in their state as comparable (respondents from all other ASEAN member states thought China to be dominant).

By focusing more intently on Singapore with a mixed political, economic, and security approach Washington can make this relationship stronger over time. Initial steps could involve: increasing arms shipments and military coordination via training exercises; leveraging the overlap in each country’s demand for imports and supply of exports, particularly in the materials and information and communications technology sectors, to increase the exchange of goods and services; and promptly filling the ambassadorial vacancy at the U.S. embassy in Singapore.

More challenging cases are what can be called competitive states — Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Brunei — where recent years’ trends have tilted in China’s favor. Whether China’s gains will continue to outpace those of the United States will be determined largely by the latter’s efforts to make significant headway of its own. Of these competitive countries, Vietnam arguably offers the clearest path ahead, given the impressive boost in  security influence there during the Obama administration after the end of the U.S. ban on arms sales to Vietnam. Hanoi has reciprocated the rapprochement, with official statements in support of U.S. actions in the South China Sea, including Washington’s rejection of Chinse territorial claims and the U.S. Navy’s persistence in performing freedom of navigation exercises.

Washington could also gain further ground in Vietnam with the aid of its allies in Seoul. Current aid and trade flows from South Korea into Vietnam are already sizable, outpacing all other partners by a substantial degree. This relationship positions South Korea as the top influencer in Vietnam since 2017, according to our team’s index. By coordinating partnership strategies, both the United States and South Korea could take advantage of shared opportunities for greater engagement with states where they both enjoy competitive advantages.

South Korea also possesses substantial influence capacity in Indonesia, ranking near, although somewhat short of, the index scores of China and the United States in the country. The United States will likely need this support. Although Washington has made concerted efforts at boosting its security influence capacity in Indonesia since 2012 through re-energizing security links, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited opportunities for face-to-face military exchanges and halted previous growth trends in trade, preventing the United States from securing any advantage over China. We expect that unless the United States makes a concerted push to grow additional interdependencies with Indonesia, Chinese economic growth will help Beijing to maintain its advantage.

In expanding to a regional rather than a simply bilateral focus, U.S. policymakers could promote South Korea’s region-wide participation in security affairs via mechanisms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “plus”, or Quad+. In this vein, Japan, a formal U.S. treaty ally with extensive diplomatic influence and a significant global economic footprint, could also provide a strong counterbalance to China. Recent enthusiasm from both American and Japanese policymakers about participation in the Quad is a signal of greater desires for coordinated strategy. Greater coordination could in turn mean more effective management of interdependencies with and between key states in Southeast Asia. That said, expansion from a Quad and Quad+ arrangement will first require a long-term easing of recurring tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.

Boosting ASEAN

Mending ties among America’s East Asian allies is a tall order, though a recent meeting between the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers suggests that there is promise here. Meanwhile, a potentially more difficult diplomatic task — though arguably more crucial given the need to move beyond a head-to-head framework of U.S. competition with China — is the promotion of stronger ties within Southeast Asia. Indeed, a more cohesive and single-minded ASEAN could ensure its own regional intra-dependence far outweighs its member countries’ reliance on China or the United States. According to our index scores, as of 2020, the sum of intra-ASEAN influence — that is, ASEAN member countries’ combined total influence capacity in other ASEAN countries — was double that of China’s influence in ASEAN and two-and-a-half times that of the United States.

Goods trade between ASEAN countries has grown rapidly in recent years and, as of 2018, exceeded that of China, the United States, Japan, or South Korea individually. That same year, “[t]he regions share of global FDI inflows also rose to 11.5 percent” — growth that the ASEAN Secretariat and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development expected to continue. All the while, ASEAN as an organization has worked to strengthen political and security ties between its members through events like the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in pursuit of its goals outlined in the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025.

Notwithstanding the difficulties that ASEAN leaders have had in convincing Myanmar’s military regime to cease their campaign of extrajudicial killings in the months following February’s coup, these trends suggest a future where ASEAN can evolve beyond being an organization existing to “manage mistrust and differences among its members.” Instead, it could develop into one more capable of assertively coordinating shared member interests and establishing greater regional independence from outside powers.

Greater ASEAN intra-dependence, and thus greater ASEAN autonomy, may reduce the influence of the United States, but so too would it likely reduce the region’s relative reliance on China. Supporting a more interconnected regional bloc and focusing on building influence in key states where opportunities exist — such as Singapore, Vietnam, and even more challenging cases like Indonesia — would present the United States with the chance to be viewed as a desired partner encouraging regional empowerment. Given U.S. advantages in many of these countries and the substantial influence capacity of U.S. allies and partners both within and outside the region, the likely result is promising.

Wisdom to Know the Difference

Although the structural linkages modeled in the index do not account for bilateral cooperation on key issues like climate change or human rights, it does allow us to gauge interdependencies through quantifiable metrics that can be potentially leveraged as bilateral influence. Using these metrics to size up the competition in Southeast Asia, U.S. policymakers should recognize where American influence is significantly outmatched by China, identify opportunities where the trend of relative losses in American influence can be reversed, and direct resources accordingly.

Given the conditions of the international system and its likely futures, U.S. policymakers should reconsider their strategies toward pursuing influence around the world — not just in Southeast Asia. The era of the hyperpower broadly maintaining influence across every region of the world is quickly coming to a close. China has responded by increasing its economic footprint and building influence in regions where it was not previously engaged, solidifying its position as a global power. Asking states to pick sides, as was done in the Cold War, is no longer a viable strategy in the modern globalized world. Cognizant of China’s strengths and its own limitations, the United States should seek to reframe its strategic influence policy in ways that leverage its comparative advantages: robust alliances and productive histories with multilateral organizations. Rather than seeking to grow America’s influence in Southeast Asia at the expense of China’s, U.S. policymakers’ best hope is a stronger regional group that reduces Southeast Asian nations’ dependence on both outside powers. Maintaining strong ties in countries that the United States already trades, trains, or otherwise cooperates with frequently is part of this.

By working with partners and a well-diversified mixture of tools for bilateral influence, U.S. policymakers can more effectively and productively manage competition with China in Southeast Asia and beyond. In contrast, a unilateral, military-centric approach would be a mistake — perhaps a fatal mistake, where competition escalates into outright conflict.



Dr. Austin S. Matthews is a research scientist at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver and an Open Research Laboratory associate at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research has been featured in Electoral Studies, German Politics, and the Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @austinsmatthews.

Collin Meisel is the Diplometrics Program lead and a research associate at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. You can follow him on Twitter @collinmeisel.  

Image: Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia