How to forge regional coalitions

Hoang Thi Ha

About the author

Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.


Washington’s objective is to preserve the principles and institutions of the post-war liberal international system - of which the United States has been the key architect and guarantor for the past 76 years - and to project them onto the contemporary Indo-Pacific, underpinned by American ideational leadership and military pre-eminence.

In “How America Can Shore up Asian Order”, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi selectively highlight some of these principles. Their emphasis on “freedom of navigation, sovereign equality, transparency, peaceful dispute resolution” appears to be a swipe at China, its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and opaque deals under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “Great Power Competition” is the lens through which the authors view the region and US efforts to “shore up Asian order”. This is a natural response to the imperatives of US interest, power and values in the face of a strong, ambitious China which is actively seeking to re-write the rules of the game in Asia and beyond.

Yet the question of whether “Europe’s past will be Asia’s future” fails to recognise that Europe, past or present, is much more compact, geographically and ideologically, than the Indo-Pacific. Configurations of power and regional governance within the vast swathe of Indo-Pacific territory and maritime domain are far more diffuse. Whatever geographical boundaries are to be drawn around it, the Indo-Pacific is too broad and too complex to be subsumed under a definitive “operating system” dictated by a hegemon or a concert of powers.

As a sub-region of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia both contributes to and diverges from the post-war liberal international system. Southeast Asian countries and their regional grouping — ASEAN — place a premium on the principles of sovereignty, non-interference and open and free trade. But they have also sought to attenuate and co-opt the so-called “universal values” of democracy and human rights. Most countries in this sub-region do not sit neatly in the categories of “liberal” or “authoritarian”, but populate the spectrum in between. Even with the trappings of a democracy, like in the Philippines and Malaysia, antiquated political culture and structures, including clannism and patronism, remain robust and resilient.

Southeast Asian countries do not want to subscribe to an exclusionary vision of regional order by either Washington or Beijing. Many leaders choose China for infrastructure projects not because they are charmed by China’s “shared prosperity” narrative or financial offerings. They do so because the Chinese way of doing business fits with their vested interests and political objectives. Understanding local dynamics is key to developing a tailored approach in response to the BRI. Touting values-based infrastructure and calling out China’s debt-trap diplomacy is self-gratifying, but ineffective.

Washington should broaden its aperture beyond great power politics, and appreciate the complexity and agency of states in the region. US policy in Afghanistan provided an example of the failure to understand local conditions. As former US Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy said, “the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning. The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context.”

With America’s global reach now much more constrained, Washington should be careful not to let the narrative of great power rivalry crowd out the voices and initiatives of smaller states and their sub-regional and regional groupings. Campbell and Doshi recognise the importance of “forging coalitions” with allies and partners, and of bolstering “buy-in” from other states. But while the merits of this approach are clear, the means to do it effectively are not.

As a first step, the United States should go beyond geopolitical polemics and rhetorical principles, and invest in a positive agenda for effective engagement with Asia, especially through deepening economic linkages and leveraging American “soft power” assets of education and innovation.

Second, ideological framing of the US-China contest will not win the United States many friends in Asia. Washington would gain more mileage by playing a part in meeting the practical needs of regional countries, for example on Covid-19 vaccine support.

Third, Washington should be more a listening partner than a commanding patron in shaping the still malleable contours of the Indo-Pacific. Tracing lessons from Europe’s history may help, but being attentive to local nuances and dynamics is more critical to the success of Washington’s Asia policy.

Last but not least, although the Biden administration’s pro-middle class foreign policy has the long-term rationale of being “strong at home to be strong abroad”, its attendant policies of re-shoring the manufacturing base and shying away from mega trade deals will pull the United States further away from the regional production and trade integration networks. This remains the most serious hole in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, especially in light of China’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after having joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement with 14 other Asian nations last year. China’s rhetoric that Asia needs “jobs over submarines” does resonate with many Asians. Balance of power alone will not guarantee the United States a permanent foothold in the region.

Challenge the expert

Ben Scott, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project, challenges Hoang Thi Ha’s key arguments.

If the Indo-Pacific is too broad and too complex to be subsumed under a definitive “operating system”, should the United States abandon all talk of the “rules-based order” in the region?

Washington and its allies and partners increasingly refer to the “rules-based order” to push back against Beijing. Yet, there is no global consensus on the meaning of the “rules-based order” and this rhetoric has limited effect in deterring egregious actions. The liberal international order instituted after the Second World War, and consolidated further after the Cold War, is not free from contestation and manipulation by its constituent members. The United States often puts its own national interests above international law and global institutions. The United States and its allies and partners have different interpretations of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has become increasingly assertive and adroit in projecting its own “rules-based order” narrative in which “international norms and principles such as the rule of law, human rights and democracy are imbued with new meaning and “Chinese characteristics”.

Southeast Asian states support an order that protects their sovereignty from any coercive power, whether that is the West’s “Responsibility to Protect” military adventurism or China’s territorial revanchism in the South China Sea. The fundamental tenets are respect for national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity as enshrined in the UN Charter and ASEAN foundational documents including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. They are also invested in multilateral institutions such as the UN system and ASEAN-led institutions to guard their strategic autonomy.

US talk of the “rules-based order” would carry more weight if it was consistent and backed by concrete action on high-stakes issues. For instance, US leadership of the rules-based maritime order is undercut by its decision to stay out of UNCLOS. Washington has issued useful clarifications on the application of UNCLOS to South China Sea disputes, for example by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July 2020 and his successor Antony Blinken, along with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in September 2021. These must be backed by tangible support to claimants that will enhance their maritime domain awareness and capability to defend their interests. US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea alone have been of little effect in constraining Chinese “grey-zone” actions against the maritime rights and interests of these littoral states.

Can the United States reconcile its “ideological framing of the US-China contest” and its desire to “forge coalitions” in the region? If the United States de-emphasised democracy, would it exert more or less soft power in the region?

The ideological framing of US-Sino strategic competition as “democracies versus autocracies” will not win America friends among Southeast Asian ruling elites whose primary concern is to ensure regime survival. According to The State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, most Southeast Asians trust the United States not because of the compatibility of political cultures, but because they believe in America’s “vast economic resources and political will to provide global leadership”, as well as US military capability, which they see as “an asset for global peace and security”.

In practice, the Biden administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia has been guided more by pragmatism than ideology. De-emphasising democracy has allowed for more flexibility and windows of opportunity for the exercise of American soft power, especially among state bureaucracy and local communities. Good examples can be found in the initiatives launched during US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam in August 2021, including the opening of the Peace Corps office in Hanoi. This signified growing mutual trust and respect for one another’s political systems. Only a decade ago, the Communist Party of Vietnam still saw the Peace Corps as a US instrument of “peaceful evolution” to undermine its ruling regime.

Washington’s pragmatic approach is justified by evidence which shows that, in Southeast Asia, good governance does not necessarily correlate with a democratically elected government. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Worldwide Governance Indicators, Vietnam ranked low in terms of “voice and accountability”, but performed better than democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines in “control of corruption”, “rule of law”, “government effectiveness”, and “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism”. The United States should continue to invest in enabling improved governance through top-down engagements, such as policy dialogue and technical assistance, as well as engagement with civil society and youth leadership in the region.

Can you describe some of the “initiatives of smaller states and their subregional and regional groupings” that the United States should pay more attention to, and how doing so would affect US policy towards the region?

The Lower Mekong subregion is a hotspot of both ecological-environmental crisis and great power contest. The Mekong ecosystem, which spans all mainland Southeast Asian states, is critically endangered by the cumulative impact of climate change and unsustainable use of the rivers’ water, especially dam building. China controls the Mekong’s headwaters and wields predominant economic and political influence over all downstream countries. Consequently the the Lower Mekong is increasingly under the China’s shadow and becoming an extension of the country’s southwestern frontiers.

At stake are not only the livelihoods of riparian communities, but also the future of “Southeast Asia” as one region. China’s return as the pre-eminent power in the Mekong subregion is exacerbating a bifurcation between maritime and mainland states that is reflected in ASEAN disunity.

Partly driven by the logic of strategic competition with China, the United States has sought to boost the resilience and autonomy of Mekong partners. US government agencies, research institutions and non-governmental organisations have developed beneficial programs that aim to fill the gaps in transparency as well as develop human capital and standards for infrastructure building at the local level. Programs such as USAID Mekong Safeguards and the Mekong Water Data Initiative should be scaled up and synergised with similar efforts by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) as well as those of Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia.

External powers have strengthened downstream states in their dealings with China over the Mekong. Last year, China agreed to share with the MRC year-round data from two of its Mekong hydrological stations. This move was partly driven by sharp US criticism and scrutiny of Chinese upstream dam operations following the release of the Eyes on Earth report in April 2020.


Five essays from experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.