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Biden’s South-East Asia doctrine: repairing damage and neglect from the Obama and Trump years

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 23 August 2021

When Joe Biden took over the United States presidency last January, South-East Asia appeared to be low on his list of priorities. After setting the direction within the European and East Asian regions, the Biden administration has set sight on repairing the damage done during the Obama era, and the neglected, somewhat transactional nature of relationships that endured during the Trump years. Biden has begun to re-engage the region with a lot of work to do.

The timing of Biden's South-East Asia re-engagement is unfortunate, with most governments within the region concerned with Covid-19 spikes, within their respective nations. Myanmar is in the grip of a military Junta, after a coup earlier this year, Thailand is in the hands of an unpopular milocracy, Malaysia is in the midst of a political crisis, the Philippines will have a transition to a new administration next year, while some countries have edged closer to China. China is much more influential and militarily stronger than during the Obama era, and even the Trump years.

However, the pandemic has provided the Biden administration with the opportunity to participate in vaccine diplomacy, a well-received gesture, as all South-East Asian states are facing vaccine shortages. The Biden administration can also take advantage of the weaknesses in Chinese diplomacy. China's growing aggressiveness on the South-China Sea, often abrupt demeanour in bilateral relations, and "wolf-warrior" diplomacy is not aiding its position in the region with member states.


Nevertheless, no South-East Asian nation subscribes to the concept of containing China in the classical 'cold war' sense. Any philosophical "cold war" era approaches to the region, just won't work. There is a measured admiration for China and its achievements over the region. China has developed respect among many quarters.

Nations of this region feel comfortable with a neighbour they have shared the region with for centuries, where family and clan ties overlap the region. Many of the elite families within the region are only a couple of generations away from Chinese ancestors, links that have become important for commerce, more than anything else. There is a large business-orientated Chinese diaspora in the region as well.

One of the most telling things about the Biden administration's South-East Asian initiative is that it was delivered by former army general and now defence secretary Lloyd Austin at the Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, six months after the Biden inauguration.

The policy narratives closely resemble those espoused by Kurt Michael Campbell, who was appointed National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, and was a former assistant secretary of state under the Obama administration. The US state department assembled a think-tank of academics and diplomats for this purpose.

The China Emergence

China is becoming diplomatically and militarily more aggressive. This reflects a deep political change within China, over the last decade, where Chinese premier Xi Jinping consolidated his power. The bureaucracy and leadership have been taken over by Xi loyalists from the New Zhijiang Army, and Shuang Xi Gang, apparatchiks in pursuing the "China Dream", and "China Rejuvenation."


Thus, the Chinese ideological situation is vastly different from the Obama years. This presents a great challenge to any rule-based economic, and military world order. This is particularly the case when China has a completely different vision of what the world should be like than the US.

The old Keenan containment doctrine of the Cold War cannot be applied to the region, as South-East Asian states cannot be simply classified as taking any "us or them" ideological orientation. South-East Asian states won't necessarily take sides like most did in the Cold War. We are not witnessing a clash of ideologies, rather the process of China moulding the region, better suited to its own interests.

In 2019, a China defence white paper mapped out a strategic masterplan of creating a community of common destiny (CCD), within the philosophy of building a community with a "shared future of mankind."

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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