Concerns Mount Over US Commitment to Regional Stability
As the United States grapples with internal conflicts and global confrontations, Southeast Asia is left questioning the extent of US engagement in regional affairs. The South China Sea disputes further complicate matters, raising doubts about the bandwidth the US can dedicate to the region, according to political scientist Chong Ja Ian from the National University of Singapore.
The pivotal aspect lies in whether leaders from the United States and China can effectively manage their competitive relationship, a factor that holds significant consequences for Asia’s stability and prosperity.
Despite the November summit between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco, concerns linger. While economic and political dialogues increased, and an agreement to restore military-to-military communication was reached, uncertainties remain about the ability of the two superpowers to peacefully coexist.
The worry intensifies in Southeast Asia as the US finds itself entangled in conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Ongoing wars in the Israel-Hamas conflict and Russia’s war in Ukraine, nearing its two-year mark in February 2024, demand US attention and resources. The potential widening of conflicts in the Middle East poses a risk of diverting US focus away from East Asia, impacting its capacity to respond to crises.
The absence of broadly recognized alternative arrangements to manage regional order heightens concerns. While political elites in Southeast Asia express ambivalence toward the US role, there is a desire to continue benefiting from active US economic, security, and political engagement. However, the lack of confidence in regional leadership to navigate contemporary challenges is apparent.
Southeast Asian nations seem hesitant to invest in updating the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to enhance its effectiveness in the current uncertain world. Instead, there is a trend toward ad hoc bilateral or mini-lateral arrangements involving both regional and extra-regional actors to address economic and security needs.
As the liberal, rules-based order faces challenges, countries in Southeast and Northeast Asia must grapple with the changing dynamics between the United States and China. The question of how to chart their course amid major power tensions and limited regional leadership remains unanswered.
Amidst these uncertainties, Southeast Asian states may find themselves at a crossroads, needing to decide how to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape as major powers engage in disputes, and the regional bloc displays limited leadership.