Webinar on “US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Dr Michael Green shared his insights on the trends in US strategy towards the Indo-Pacific.


Friday, 8 July 2022 – The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, designed for an era of geopolitical rivalry with China, has brought concerns about Southeast Asia’s ability to shape the dynamics of its region. In a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Michael Green examined the U.S. strategy towards the Indo-Pacific while considering the impact for Southeast Asia and ASEAN. Dr Green is the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Studies Centre in Sydney and former Senior Director for Asia in the US National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.

Dr Michael Green shared his observations on trends in US strategy toward the Indo-Pacific. With Ms Hoang Thi Ha as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Green suggested that great power competition has undermined ASEAN’s capacity to exercise considerable agency to shape the regional dynamics. Previously, during the 1990s and 2000s, there was broad acceptance of ASEAN-led multilateralism, including the various fora anchored in the organization. ASEAN was able to impose an “influence tax”, such as nudging China into negotiating a code of conduct in the South China Sea after Beijing’s occupation of Mischief Reef. ASEAN also managed to impose a reputational cost on the US through the Chiang Mai Initiative in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. According to Dr Green, ASEAN, at that time, “could punish the big powers for ignoring regional interests”. However, those days when the “ASEAN Way, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN forums” were in ascendancy are over. The July 2016 UNCLOS arbitral ruling was a critical turning point. Not only did China reject the judgment, but Beijing was able to block ASEAN’s internal consensus and prevent the organization from issuing a joint statement on the matter. China’s interference undermined ASEAN’s ability to impose its influence tax, and it remains to be seen whether ASEAN can regain its agency.

Meanwhile, Dr Green described the Trump administration’s declaration of a “strategic competition” with China in its 2017 National Security Strategy was a natural response to China’s changing approach to regional security. A significant juncture was President Xi Jinping’s advocacy of “Asia for Asians” security cooperation at the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). That approach particularly spooked Washington since it would exclude the United States from the continent.

Furthermore, the shift in the U.S. strategic approach is backed by broad, bipartisan consensus. In general, the Washington foreign policymaking elite has abandoned the view that the United States should seek to prioritize its bilateral relations and reach a condominium with China in the belief that stable relations with China would secure the U.S. position in Asia. Instead, a more maritime-oriented strategy towards Asia is now favoured, in which the United States should align with its allies and strategic partners to counter-balance China’s rise. (This shift in elite perspective is also mirrored in ground sentiment as public opinion polls reveal more in favour of “working with allies” over “stable relations with China”.)

Dr Green highlighted that the Indo-Pacific strategy’s maritime framing and clear emphasis on maritime Asia represent a shift in focus from shaping China itself to shaping the environment around China. From 1972 to 2017, the U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific had been focused on transforming China’s behaviour, whether through bilateral cooperation or establishing the conditions to incentivize Beijing to re-align its economic rules. However, the failure of this enterprise has prompted the United States to instead adopt the alternative strategy of “shoring up” the region so that China is not able to threaten U.S. interests.

One major shortcoming of the current Indo-Pacific strategy, however, is the lack of a long-term vision about how the United States will co-exist with China. While other U.S. allies (such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) have articulated their respective hopes for a productive relationship with China, the United States has yet to define the kind of relations that it wants with China. The lack of an economic strategy represents another shortcoming. While the recent promulgation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) could be regarded as a diplomatic success since it garnered the involvement of 12 countries, Dr Green noted that this was partly due to the fact that the contents of IPEF were vague and not “economically substantive”.

Dr Green saw some promise in the Biden administration’s approach to ASEAN. He identified Southeast Asia as the “most important audience” of the 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy document. Dr Green argued that the document displayed a “level of nuance” in trying to convince ASEAN about the importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy, especially in being sensitive and understanding about the region’s general discomfort about being caught in the geopolitical competition. The Biden administration has also been strong in its diplomatic outreach to ASEAN, having appointed a new ambassador to ASEAN and hosting a Special Summit.

Nevertheless, challenges remain. ASEAN has yet to recover from China’s interference in the aftermath of the July 2016 arbitral ruling. Beijing is still able to intervene and disrupt the organization’s internal consensus. The prospects for the IPEF remain unclear, especially since Indonesia and India may become more reticent as the agenda moves towards more substantive rule-making. Myanmar remains debilitating for ASEAN’s credibility and internal unity. Moreover, the external environment is daunting, especially as the great power competition intensifies. This has resulted, for instance, in the increasing alignment between the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific alliances, with the United States corralling together its European and Asian allies. As such, Dr Green surmised that despite the United States’ careful and nuanced approach to the region, it will be difficult for ASEAN to re-assert its agency.

At the end of his talk, Dr Green engaged in a Q&A session with the audience of around 160 from Singapore and abroad. He fielded queries relating to the United States’ strategic messaging to the region, the prospects for “guardrails” to prevent accidental conflicts between China and the United States, the role of Europe and NATO in the Indo-Pacific, the opportunities and challenges for minilateralism in the region, and the possible trajectory for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy following this November’s mid-term elections.