Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, With Lynn Kuok

Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific, and how those policies are viewed in southeast Asia.

October 26, 2021 — 28:30 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Lynn Kuok

Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, The International Institute for Strategic Studies

Show Notes

Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific, and how those policies are viewed in southeast Asia.

 

Articles Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Lee Hsien Loong, “The Endangered Asian Century,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2020)

 

Adam Posen, “The Price of Nostalgia,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2021)

 

Documents and Speeches Mentioned

 

ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific [PDF], ASEAN, June 22, 2019

 

Joseph R. Biden, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance [PDF], The White House, March 2021

 

Mike Pompeo, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” delivered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, July 23, 2020

 

Sharon Seah et al., The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 [PDF], ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, January 2021

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to the President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Joe Biden's Indo Pacific strategy.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss the Biden administration's policy toward the Asia Pacific and particularly how those policies are viewed in Southeast Asia is Lynn Kuok. Lynn is the stronger law dialogue senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies where she co-edits, double I, double S's, Asia Pacific regional security assessment. Lynn is based in Singapore, but is also a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and has taught at the US State Department's Foreign Service Institute. Lynn, thanks for joining me today.

Lynn Kuok:

Thank you so much for having me, James. It's a real pleasure to be here.

Jim Lindsay:

Lynn, I want to talk about the Biden administration's policies, but I think where I'd like to begin, is just with a little bit of a backdrop in context and get your read of how Joe Biden's election was read in Southeast Asia. At least on average, I know there's differences among countries, but to what extent were people pleased, concerned, not interested at all? How would you assess the view of the Biden Ascension from Southeast Asia?

Lynn Kuok:

Southeast Asia was generally welcoming of the Biden administration coming to power, but I would say that Southeast Asia didn't think too harshly about the Trump administration. So the contrast between the Trump and the Biden administration, the welcome that Southeast Asia gave to it wasn't as stark as say the distinction in the United States and in much of Europe. So I would say that the Biden administration was welcomed because it brought a degree of stability. The Trump administration was perceived as very chaotic and much of it was quite dramatic for the countries who never knew what the Trump administration would be doing next. However, the Trump administration did implement some good policies that the region welcomed and that was most stark in the South China Sea. I could go into that a little bit.

Jim Lindsay:

Please do. I think that would be helpful for people to get a sense of what it was about Trump's policies, however, chaotic or erratic they might have been, that resonated with countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the rest.

Lynn Kuok:

I think the most important thing that the Trump administration did was that after a lapse of about four years of the tribunal decision in the South China Sea case, that the Philippines brought against China, the Trump administration finally embraced the tribunal decision, the merits of the case. And made it part of US policy as well. So, whereas, for the four year is proceeding 2020 when the Trump administration did that, the focus of the United States and its allies was predominantly on freedom of navigation, operations, the right of the US and its Navy to traverse the South China Sea in 2020. The Trump administration, in particular Secretary Pompeo's statement of July, 2020, stated that it was endorsing and accepting the tribunal decision, particularly that part of it, which stated that China has no rights to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone from features in the Spratlys.

Jim Lindsay:

And then of course, greatly limited China's claim to the South China Sea, though Beijing has never recognized that ruling. Correct Lynn?

Lynn Kuok:

Beijing has never recognized that ruling, it rejected the tribunal jurisdiction. It said that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the case, because in essence, it was a case about sovereignty over land features and the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear sovereignty issues. In other words, it had no jurisdiction to determine who has, which country has a better claim to land features because the United Nations convention and the law of the sea does not deal with competing claims to land features. But I think what's important to note is that the Philippines actually defined its case as one that sought clarity over the nine dash line and what China can lawfully claim from the nine dash line. As well as the status and maritime entitlements or features in the Spratlys as well as Scarborough shore. So I think in that respect, Beijing was completely wrong to say that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the case because the tribunal clearly had jurisdiction to determine the status and maritime entitlements of features in the Spratlys.

Jim Lindsay:

So countries across Southeast Asia actually saw a lot they liked in the Trump administration's policies toward the region, particularly in the question of the South China Sea. Now you have a change administration, Joe Biden comes in. I think it's pretty clear, at least in Washington, that Joe Biden has set forth China as job number one for US foreign policy. I'm curious, from the region, how is Joe Biden's Indo Pacific strategy seen? What do you see it as being?

Lynn Kuok:

Well, I read a recent paper you wrote James about Biden's Indo Pacific strategy and I thought that was a very good framing article. And so perhaps if I may, I'll use your framing of how to assess the Biden administrations into Pacific strategy. So you started off-

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, thank you for the plugin. Hopefully the South Koreans will publish it soon.

Lynn Kuok:

I'm sure they will. So you started off with examining the strategy itself or the content of Indo Pacific strategy. And I would say that I completely agree with you that the primary difference between the Biden and the Trump administration lies not in the substance of the policy, but in its implementation with Biden, obviously seeking to work more effectively with allies and partners. And I say, seeking to work more effectively with allies and partners, of course, because the recent fallout over Afghanistan, as well as the Orca submarine deal, puts that into question. Puts the ability of the Biden administration to work effectively with allies and partners in question. I think it's fair to say that both President Trump or the Trump administration, as well as the Biden administration share the same goals, although Trump had the audacity to put this, forthrightly as America first. I don't think it's surprising that a country puts its national interests first.

Lynn Kuok:

I'm currently based in Singapore. And I would be very surprised if Singapore put said, Malaysia first or Malaysia said, Singapore first. That's just not going to happen. I think the difference really lies in whether a country considers its national interest best served working with allies and partners and through multi lateral frameworks as the Biden administration clearly does. Or it considers its national interest best served by forging a more solitary path.

Lynn Kuok:

So certainly I think the difference is in means not in desired ends. I think the second way you assess the Biden administration into Pacific strategy is through looking at the implementation of the strategy. I think that although it's tried to lead with diplomacy and focus less on military means at least that's what the Biden interim national security strategic guidance sought to say. It's been quite weak in terms of even this diplomatic prom in its approach to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia didn't receive its first high level visitor from the United States till seven months after President Biden took office. The visit by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in late July was followed by VP Kamala Harris's visit in mid August. And both these visits were cheered by the region. It was welcomed by the region, but they were very much regarded as the United States playing catch up after seven months of absence.

Jim Lindsay:

Lynn, can I ask you about that? Because I found that quite surprising. It would've seemed that in your foreign policy playbook on page one, if your argument is going to be, we're going to rally like minded countries, our friends, partners, and allies that you would actually show up pretty early, at least some of these critical countries. So what has the read been in Southeast Asia about the fact that the Biden administration isn't showing up until seven months in? Is it we'll give them a past time or are people concerned that the administration is signaling where they rank Southeast Asia countries like Singapore, Indonesia in the pecking order.

Lynn Kuok:

The United States has always paid lip service to the centrality of ASEAN and the importance of Southeast Asia to its inter Pacific strategy. I think there can be no question that Southeast Asia is important or should be important to the Indo Pacific strategy. It lies at the geographic heart of the Indo Pacific strategy, and China has been assiduously cultivating ties in the region. So it should be an important area of priority for the Biden administration. But I do think that the lack of a high level visitor to the region till so late on in the Biden administration hurt the United States. There was meant to be an earlier virtual meeting between Secretary of State Blinken with his counterparts.

Lynn Kuok:

But this was put off to great continuation in the region because of a technical glitch when Secretary Blinken was actually on his way to the Middle East. So I think his Southeast Asian counterparts were waiting behind a computer monitor for about 45 minutes for that glitch to be resolved.

Jim Lindsay:

Ouch.

Lynn Kuok:

Yeah. The region took some offense. I think they've since smoothed over ties by sending both the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, as well as Vice President Harris to the region. So that's been a very positive sign, but you know, diplomacy can only go so far. So even if the United States were to get its diplomacy in the region right, it still needs to go beyond that to kind of walk the talk about Southeast Asia being important. And of course it faces several challenges in that respect.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I want to get you those challenges. I should note that even though we're eight months into the Biden administration. The Biden administration still does not have ambassadors in any of these countries. That's actually a systemic problem. I think we only have two confirmed US ambassadors right now that reflects partly the slowness of the administration and partly hold ups in the United States Senate. So I assume that probably adds to the sense of the United States, not paying sufficient attention to things in Southeast Asia.

Jim Lindsay:

But I'm curious before we go into the steps that the Biden administration might take Lynn, I was wondering if you could just give me a sense as to whether or not the countries that you follow in Southeast Asia, have a similar read or similar concern about China. To what extent countries in the region, again, I'm sure it may differ as you look around Southeast Asia, have a different read on the challenge that China presents.

Lynn Kuok:

On China, I think there's no doubt that many countries in the region are worried about Chinese actions, particularly in the South China Sea. But also beyond that in terms of interference within societies. But in the South China Sea, for instance, China is encroaching upon the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian countries. It's sending hundreds of vessels at certain points to features occupied by Southeast Asian countries. And of course it's sort to object to assertions of maritime rights by the US and other powers in the international waters of the South China Sea. So all these actions on China's part leads to great concern among Southeast Asian countries, especially since encroachments upon their exclusive economic rights hurts their rice bowl because of the fishing resources and oil and gas resources, which these developing countries greatly need. But they have a very complex relationship with China. So despite these concerns about China, they speak less for instance about China's actions and more about not wanting to choose between the United States and China.

Lynn Kuok:

And so we hear this refrain very, very often. Southeast Asia does not want to choose between the United States and China. But my sense is that this is a way of sidestepping concerns about assertive and at points and lawful Chinese actions in the region as well without necessarily incurring China's wrath. So yeah, China isn't viewed well in the region. That said, I think it would be wrong to conclude from that, that simply because it isn't viewed well and it's viewed rarely, that China has no influence in the region. I think quite the opposite. There's polling to support this negative view of China in the region. So in an Institute of Southeast Asian studies poll that was published earlier this year, when elites in Southeast Asia were asked who they would align itself with, if it had to choose between the US and China, 61.5% chose the United States and only 38.5% chose China.

Lynn Kuok:

Can we then infer from that the US has an easy ride in Southeast Asia? I think not because if we look at another important statistic in terms of who is regarded as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, China far outstrips the United States. I was actually very surprised by this statistic. It's 76.3% chose China compared to a mere 7.4% the United States, when I mentioned this to just the general populous, they were actually surprised that the gap wasn't even broader. So this was a poll of elites, but the non elites or the general populace actually thought that China's economic influence was far greater than the United States.

Lynn Kuok:

And of course, this may not have implications right now for country security ties with the United States and United States influence in the region. But moving forward in terms of the trajectory of relations with China or the United States, I think the United States should be concerned.

Jim Lindsay:

I take your point, Lynn, that China is an economic powerhouse and exerts enormous gravitational pull, particularly in its neighborhood. And Southeast Asia is pretty close to China. And I also understand your point that countries in Southeast Asia would prefer not to have to choose. They obviously must worry that if they were to be seen as being too pro-American, that China may retaliate. In ways we've seen the Chinese bring economic pressure over the course of this year against Australia for a variety of reasons. So that leads me to ask what is it that Southeast Asian countries are hoping the Biden administration will do? They don't want to choose, but they obviously don't want the United States to cede the region to China. So what would be the ideal policy that people in countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, would rally around

Lynn Kuok:

The region hasn't been terribly clear about this, but here's what I think should be their policy and how the United States should approach the question. I think the framing shouldn't be a choice between the United States and China. It should be framed as support for rules-based international order. Less countries lose their sovereign rights or their freedom of choice or their autonomy of action. And this is something that no country wants. And when we start talking about a rules-based order, this is something that China in principle actually also talks about how it supports the rule of law as well. I think its quarrel has never been about whether international law should apply. Its quarrel has always been about its interpretation of international laws is different from the United States and some others.

Lynn Kuok:

So, I won't say that there will be no trouble from China if Southeast Asia came out more strongly in favor of the rules-based international order. I think China has shown that it will still punish some of these countries for doing so, but I think it's an easier case to make. And it's also a more justifiable one. So we look even at Europe's role in all of this. And I think Europe has a big part to play in terms of maintaining the balance of power and defending the rules base international order. In a sense that's a softer approach than a hard on US-China competition, but it can't be so soft that it's all about words and there's no willingness to commit resources to supporting the rules base international order, because sometimes that takes risk.

Lynn Kuok:

And sometimes that takes resources and whether it's Europe or it's Southeast Asia, these two regions absolutely do need to start taking some risk and expending some resources in terms of supporting this rules base international order because you can have no economic security in the long run if that rules-based international order isn't supported. In the short run perhaps, and I think that's what everyone's focused on. But in the long run, you lose that degree of autonomy to even make economic choices. So if we look at the code of conduct in the South China Sea that's being negotiated.

Lynn Kuok:

One of the terms that China has sought include in it, I mean it's objected to by countries. But one of the terms that China has sought to include in it has been a term that excludes third country companies from cooperating in the maritime economy of Southeast Asian countries. So that's completely exclusionary and it completely confines Southeast Asia's autonomy. So that's a sort of situation we're trying to avoid for the future. And we are still able to do that. If only countries were a bit more forward leaning in that respect and this doesn't have to mean that they come up against China necessarily, but they need to be willing to take some risk to defend the rule of law.

Jim Lindsay:

Pursuing this point about support for rules-based order taking into account people can disagree about what the rules are, how to interpret them or who should get the rules. What is it that countries in Southeast Asia are hoping from the Biden administration in an area like trade?

Lynn Kuok:

In an area like trade, I mean, that's such an important question because trade is a means by which the United States can show that it's engagement in the region is broad based and multifaceted and isn't merely focused on strategic competition with China. And so when the United States under President Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific partnership trade agreement, that was a huge missed opportunity for the United States. Under the Biden administration, I think President Biden has also somewhat tied his hands, America's hands behind its back by its foreign policy for the middle class. Given that the US interim national security strategic guidance, which was issued in March this year makes clear that Washington will only pursue new trade deals after it has made investments in American workers and communities. So I think that's a little bit problematic for the United States, at least in the short to medium term while it's seeking to make investments in American workers and communities.

Lynn Kuok:

So it kind of leaves the United States without a very important tool for more deeply engaging with the Indo Pacific region and for competing with China. I think in his piece for the Foreign Affairs magazine, this was published in August last year, the prime minister of Singapore actually highlighted how the importance of trade deals and in this case, I think he was focused in particular on the CPTPP, goes beyond the mere economic gains that the region and the United States may gain from it. But the importance of such trade deals strategically, it's an opportunity for countries to cooperate with one another. To develop stakes in one another's success and together shape the regional architecture and the rules that govern it. So, I think especially with China, forging ahead with RCEP. With China, submitting recently a request to accede to the CPTPP and in such a way, presenting itself as a protective of the global trading system, the United States does need to think long and hard about whether or not its interests might actually be best served by resigning onto the CPTPP.

Jim Lindsay:

I should note that the CPTPP is the successory agreement to the trans specific partnership deal that the Obama administration negotiated and Donald Trump took the United States out of. I will note, Lynn that there's a strong argument to be made that not participating in TPP or CPTPP is not only not good for America’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia. It's actually not really good for the American middle class. There's a great piece by Adam Pose and the president of the Peterson Institute in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, which goes into this in some detail. But moving away from the issue of trade, how are countries in the region reacting to Joe Biden's talk about democracy and human rights. Clearly at least at a rhetorical level, the Biden administration has elevated those concerns. Spending a lot of time talking about issues like the Uighurs, the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. Is that part of the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy resonating in Southeast Asia?

Lynn Kuok:

I don't think it resonates very well. The talk about democracy and human rights has always been a very sensitive topic in Southeast Asia, which is a region of illiberal democracies, backsliding democracies and in some cases authoritarian states. It's not the best foot forward to be taking in its approach to the region. I can understand why the Biden administration and the Trump administration before that in its final year actually chose to frame US-China competition as a competition or a race between authoritarian states versus democracies. It garners huge amount of domestic support in the United States. It might garner some support with its allies in Europe, but in Southeast Asia, this is a framing that works very poorly. I think the region is concerned about it unnecessarily deepening divisions between the United States and China. Such an approach, also alienates potential partners in the region.

Lynn Kuok:

If we think about accusations of authoritarian states or communist states being liars, I mean this took place under the Trump administration. I think Secretary Pompeo called communist states, liars. You know that that sort of language is, it's going to resonate very poorly in countries like Vietnam, for instance. And Vietnam has been identified by the Biden administration as an important partner in the region. So it would best avoid such language. And I think the third reason why this ideological framing is problematic for the region is that it could open up strategic space for China and in the long run be counterproductive in so far as achieving democracy is concerned. So insofar, as the US goal is to bolster democracy, we might actually see a greater erosion of democracy if the United States is not careful.

Jim Lindsay:

And Lynn, how are countries in the region reacting to the Biden administration’s efforts to breathe life into the quad and this AUKUS submarine deal?

Lynn Kuok:

The quad deal was initially viewed quite wearily and I think to a certain extent that sentiment remains today. It was considered the military arm to the Indo Pacific strategy, in a sense. The more militarized version, of course that notion of it has since dissipated somewhat given the AUKUS deal. But I think it's notable that in the ASEAN outlook on the Indo Pacific, which was issued in the summer of 2019, there was no mention of the quad deal. And instead ASEAN actually focused more on the importance of economic integration and economic connectivity. So I think they issued all mention of the quad deal. Since then, I think the quad has evolved somewhere to focus more on other issues that matter more to Southeast Asia. So like their agreement on vaccine distributions, right? How the United States and Japan would pay for vaccines. Australia would help distribute vaccines and India would help manufacture these vaccines.

Lynn Kuok:

So this is something that the region welcomed, and this is a sort of thing that the quad should be focusing on. In terms of AUKUS, the reaction in the region has been somewhat mixed. I think on one end you have countries like Indonesia and Malaysia expressing grave concerns about the militarization of the region of the arms race that's occurring in the region. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Philippines where Secretary Locsin, the foreign minister actually issued a very strong statement saying that this is actually, this is very good for the region because it helps to maintain the regional balance of power, giving Australia a near neighbor a greater ability to support the balance of power in the region. And then in between you have all the rest of the countries. Singapore has been said to welcome the deal, the AUKUS deal. That might be a bit too strong.

Lynn Kuok:

I think what the prime minister did say was that he hoped that this would contribute to peace and stability and that it would complement the existing regional architecture. So I think to say that he welcomed it would be a little bit too strong, but nonetheless, I think in general, the countries in between do generally see it as positive in terms of supporting the balance of power, provided Australia, the UK, the United States are not confrontational. But they're not going to come out openly to support the deal. So I think they're quite cautious about angering China at this respect.

Jim Lindsay:

That gets back to your point about the preference, not to have to choose at least not to have to choose publicly. Lynn, I want to go back to a point you made near the beginning of our conversation, which was the consequences of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan on perceptions of US credibility. Obviously for the Biden administration, if it's going to have a successful Indo Pacific strategy, it has to be able to persuade people that it's going to do what it says it is going to do more or less along the timeline that it has laid out. And back in August, the airways here in the United States, were full of people talking about the death of American credibility because of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Jim Lindsay:

A lot of that was talked in the heat of the moment. Now that we're at least two months away from the fall of Kabul. I wonder what your sense is, your read is in the region of how the Afghanistan withdrawal is viewed in terms of American reliability. Is the case that people are worried that America's going to cut and run from Southeast Asia as well? Or is it the sense that Afghanistan’s a different place. US had fewer vital interests and so it doesn't really have any long term residents or impact.

Lynn Kuok:

Well, I think what's happening in Afghanistan is obviously a great tragedy, but in terms of its impact on the geopolitics of the region, I think that will be less than what the original hue and cry might suggest. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and its symbolic execution have obviously been milked by China to suggest first, that the United States security guarantees are unreliable. And second that the US execution is poor. So even if it were reliable, it just cannot execute. So it was a bit of an embarrassment for the United States. And of course these criticisms will no doubt impact US credibility in the short run. And to a certain extent, some of the region do question US credibility. On the other hand, I think the hard truth is that US credibility in the region has for some time now been questioned. But this is not going to stop countries in the region from working with the United States.

Lynn Kuok:

Even an unreliable partner is better than none in terms of seeking to maintain the region's balance of power. And I think the argument goes is that, and I think I believe this as well, that the withdrawal from Afghanistan could actually allow the United States to focus more on the Indo Pacific. I say could because you know, it might not necessarily do so, but I think all signs are that it will. And that I think in this respect, withdrawal from Afghanistan allows the United States to focus on the main area of competition right now.

Lynn Kuok:

I think it's also important to remember that many of the things that were said about the US credibility and wherewithal in the aftermath of Afghanistan were also said when the United States withdrew from Vietnam. But that didn't stop the United States from being the region’s unchallenged hegemon in the decades to follow. So I think if we are to take any lesson away from Afghanistan is that it's less about reliability and commitment, but more about shared interests and that having convergent interests matters. And so what that means in turn is that A, the region will have to ensure that it remains relevant to United States and B, that the United States in turn will have to show if it is to assure the region that it has enduring interest in the region and it is here to stay because of those enduring interests.

Jim Lindsay:

Well said Lynn, and on that note, I'll close up the president's inbox for this week. My guest has been Lynn Kuok, Shangri La dialogue, Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Lynn, it's been a pleasure to chat.

Lynn Kuok:

Thank you so much, James. It's been a real privilege to be on your show. Delighted to be here.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to the President's Inbox and Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and speeches mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for the presidents inbox on cfr.org. As always opinions expressed in the President's Inbox are solely those of the hosts or our guests not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlik. Zoe also did double duty as our recording engineer. Thanks as always Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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