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Report: Urgent Issues in U.S.–Southeast Asia Relations for 2021

February 3, 2021

By John J. Brandon

Southeast Asia is a vast, diverse, and complex region full of conflicting trends and differing perspectives. The region’s strategic importance makes it imperative that the United States engage with Southeast Asia in a reliable and consistent manner—especially now, given the decline of U.S. influence in the region over the past four years. On February 2, a Southeast Asia Task Force assembled by The Asia Foundation released a noteworthy report, Urgent Issues in U.S.–Southeast Asia Relations for 2021. The report attempts to identify for the new Biden administration and Congress the greatest challenges and opportunities for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia in the coming 12 to 18 months.

The nine members of the Task Force are scholars, analysts, and practitioners who work for think tanks, NGOs, business associations, and the private sector. Task Force members offered their analytical expertise and broad experience in Southeast Asian countries. They examined challenges in the areas of security, trade and economics, infrastructure, and climate change, all in the context of the growing rivalry between the United States and China and the impact of Covid-19 on the region’s prospects.

Thailand's Laem Chabang Port

Laem Chabang Port, the biggest and busiest in Thailand. (Photo: antpkr /


The report, which can be read in full here, spotlights the critical need for coherent trade and security policies to restore U.S. interests and influence in the region. Here are some of the principal findings: 

1. The United States should recognize Southeast Asia and its regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for its own importance and not just as a piece on the U.S.-China chessboard. ASEAN is showing strain as internal divisions, particularly over relations with China, are widening, and confidence in the United States is low. More-focused attention from the United States is urgently required. One important way to signal the return of meaningful U.S. engagement is to promptly name a new ambassador to ASEAN. This will send a message of support to ASEAN and demonstrate President Biden’s commitment to multilateral institutions.

2. Economic ties between the United States and ASEAN are currently the weakest element of this critical relationship. Collectively, the nations of ASEAN have the third-largest workforce and the fifth-largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of more than US$3.1 trillion. ASEAN is America’s fourth-largest export market and the top destination for U.S. foreign direct investment in Asia, a vital link in U.S. value chains, and a business destination of growing interest to U.S. companies. The United States should forge a new initiative to promote secure and resilient U.S.-ASEAN supply chains, and it should seek ASEAN’s cooperation in reforming the World Trade Organization.

3. Southeast Asia’s 400 million internet users are “the most engaged mobile internet users in the world,” according to the e-Conomy SEA 2020 report by Bain, Google, and Temasek. As in the United States, the global Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance and hastened the adoption of digital technology in ASEAN countries. The United States should negotiate a digital trade agreement with those ASEAN countries that are prepared to sign on to the U.S. model, using the U.S.-Japan agreement as the example.

The region’s strategic importance makes it imperative that the United States engage with Southeast Asia in a reliable and consistent manner—especially now, given the decline of U.S. influence in the region over the past four years.

4. China’s actions have upended the status-quo in the South China Sea, and regional maritime security more broadly, at a time when the United States’ two formal security alliances in Southeast Asia—with the Philippines and Thailand—are adrift. To give Beijing an incentive to compromise with its neighbors, the United States will need to build broader coalitions to impose costs for Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and reframe traditional alliances in ways germane to a 21st century world.

5. U.S. companies have shown little inclination to feed ASEAN’s US$2 trillion per year appetite for infrastructure investment. Nonetheless, the United States should consider bringing existing government resources to bear on prominent projects in energy, ICT infrastructure, and other sectors where it has a comparative advantage.

6. Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change and a growing source of greenhouse gases. The U.S. must focus its attention on climate change as the defining geostrategic threat in the Indo-Pacific and work closely with Southeast Asian nations to help mitigate the damage.

The central challenge for the United States will be to effectively address these issues in an environment where old relationships have been strained and resources have been limited by the economic costs of the pandemic. U.S. policy towards Southeast Asia should not be all about how to contain China, but about how the United States can work effectively and multilaterally with Southeast Asian nations to address these urgent issues—through ASEAN when possible and bilaterally when necessary.

Read the new report, Urgent Issues in U.S.–Southeast Asia Relations for 2021.

John J. Brandon is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s international relations programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Regional and International Relations
Related topics: ASEAN


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