“Biden’s Southeast Asia Commitment Challenge in the Indo-Pacific Century” was a webinar organised by the United States Programme featuring Dr Prashanth Parameswaran, a Research Fellow in the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC, and a Senior Columnist at The Diplomat. Held on 7 April 2022, the webinar presentation was based on Dr Parameswaran’s new book, Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S. Southeast Asia Strategy.
Dr Parameswaran noted that US policymakers spanning different administrations were facing the common challenge of translating rhetorical support for Southeast Asia’s importance as a region into credible and sustainable foreign policy commitments. He argued that the challenge was structural, as US policymakers attempted to balance the competing claims generated by three factors: power shifts, threat perceptions, and resource mobilisation in the American domestic political context.
As far back as the George W. Bush administration, while US policymakers recognised that China’s economic and concomitant political rise meant that it was the emerging challenge to American power in Asia and would require a robust response, the 9/11 attacks shifted the focus of US foreign policy towards the Global War on Terrorism instead. The current Biden administration continues to view China as the United States’ “pacing challenge” and has made rhetorical commitments to Southeast Asia and substantive reengagement a priority. These developments have been viewed positively in the region, given the experiences of the Trump administration’s neglect. However, resourcing, especially on the economic side of regional engagement, is still the biggest challenge for the Biden administration.
According to Dr Parameswaran, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is hamstrung because both political parties now view trade liberalisation and market access as politically anathema. He noted that having abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership under the Trump administration, the United States would find it challenging to reengage the region as it had moved on with other states already actively engaging the region.