Transatlantic Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific: Where Does Southeast Asia Fit in?

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A closer look at Southeast Asia’s role within greater transatlantic collaboration in the region.

As the United States and Europe commemorated 70 years of the transatlantic alliance earlier this month, there has been a natural uptick in conversations regarding how both sides can collaborate in various regions, including Asia, over the past few weeks. While China continues to loom large in these conversations, and understandably so given contemporary developments, Southeast Asia is another key area where the logic for greater transatlantic cooperation is clear if both sides are able to manage the opportunities and challenges therein.

The reality of some measure of strategic transatlantic interconnectivity in Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular has long been clear and is far from new. Indeed, even before getting to the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and U.S. and European approaches to the Cold War, one cannot fully understand the evolution of key aspects of U.S. and European involvement in Asia historically – be it the U.S. Open Door Policy with respect to China dating back to the late 19th century or calculations of several European powers about how to manage the decline of their colonial role in the region in the 20th century – without appreciating the interplay between the actions of both actors despite the obvious differences therein.

But it is also true that the attention to transatlantic cooperation has increased in recent years. Part of that is due to the reality that Asia’s growing economic and strategic heft has driven both the United States and Europe to invest more in the region – most clearly manifested in the Obama administration’s pivot or rebalance. While this is a shift for both actors given Washington’s traditional Europe-first tendency in its foreign policy as well as Europe’s lack of strategic attention to Asia regionally as a unified bloc, despite involvement by individual states, it left important questions unanswered, be it the level of coordination between the two actors on specific questions or how each would balance greater attention to Asia with dealing with issues in other parts of the world as well as in their own backyards amid trends such as rising populism and democratic backsliding.

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The trends and developments evident today reinforce but also complicate the quest for greater transatlantic cooperation in Asia. On the one hand, shared interests in managing specific issues ranging from the South China Sea to coordinating development assistance, coupled with growing concerns about broader issues such as aspects of Chinese behavior and the state of Western democracy and the rules-based international order, make the case for this cooperation clearer than ever, whether it is pursued in an issue-based fashion or as part of strategic concepts such as the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. But on the other hand, continued challenges with respect to coordination and bandwidth in Europe, uncertainties about some of the protectionist and unilateralist aspects of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and lingering differences on approaches between the United States and Europe, continue to muddy the waters and impose limits on what both sides can achieve.

Within that mixed picture for transatlantic cooperation in Asia, Southeast Asia has an important role to play. For one, the Southeast Asia’s own centrality makes it an obvious factor in such a conversation, with it collectively representing the world’s third largest population and the fifth largest economy, being home to strategic waterways such as the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea, and serving as a key battleground in the shaping of norms and rules between various powers including the United States and China, with relatively newer, diverse states as well as ASEAN which is a fulcrum of Asia’s multilateral architecture. For another, attention to Southeast Asia within transatlantic cooperation is a natural outgrowth of the reality that both Europe and the United States have independently been increasing the weight of the subregion within their more general Asia approaches over the past few years, which only reinforces the need for some coordination to maximize impact and minimize redundancy where it makes sense to do so.

More specifically, the subregion also offers various clear lines of effort where the United States and European states could seek to enhance collaboration. Some of this work is already ongoing and could be further reinforced, be it managing assistance in the Mekong subregion, continuing presence operations in the South China Sea, or coordination on democracy and human rights in countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia. But there is much more that could be done as well. With respect to governments, efforts at better coordinating regional counterterrorism approaches and promoting responsible and sustainable financial practices in the region in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are two areas where more attention is clearly needed. There is also a role for encouraging other nongovernmental actors as well to play a role in certain aspects, be it on managing the intersection of technology and governance or training young leaders and media professionals as the region democratizes still further.

To be sure, this would not be without its share of challenges. Some of these relate to issues with respect to the United States and Europe as actors, be it perceptions about differentiations in their role that persist to some degree or the realities of coordinating between European states or NATO’s limited bandwidth with so many other security challenges to contend with. Others have to do with Southeast Asia itself, including the skepticism among some states about outside powers trying to shape the region on their own terms, worrying subregional trends such as rising populism and ASEAN’s growing struggles as an institution, and continued anxieties over developments in the West, including Brexit and the more America First tendencies in Trump’s foreign policy.

The aforementioned challenges do not make transatlantic collaboration infeasible in Southeast Asia, and there is no reason why some of these obstacles cannot be overcome. Indeed, given the subregion’s clear importance to both Europe and the United States both independently and jointly, it only reinforces the case for more attention to Southeast Asia within the broader agenda of transatlantic cooperation, where China can at times dominate.

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