The US remains committed to the region but the success of its policy hinges on others to help uphold liberty, national sovereignty, and the freedom to navigate the global commons.
More than half a year has elapsed since President Donald Trump's inaugural Asian tour, during which he announced a US vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific". The bare bones of that regional concept were previewed in the President's remarks at Apec last November, in December's National Security Strategy, and other official pronouncements. Despite this, the region remains understandably hungry for more details and concrete action symbolising the administration's rhetorical commitment to this vision.
Events are partly to blame for America's sluggish rollout of its latest regional vision. We can thank Mr Kim Jong Un for several months of frantic search for a breakthrough with North Korea that still may emerge at a Singapore summit. The shuffling of top personnel at the White House and the State Department created a temporary hiccup, but may well catalyse more policy action in the long term.
Fortunately, the administration's inner circle on Asia policy have not been idle. The fruits of their effort will be apparent in the coming months of this year, stretching from the Shangri-La Dialogue through the Asean Regional Forum gathering of foreign ministers, to the East Asia Summit.
The fact that Singapore is the geographical focal point of this effort, complemented by its selection to host President Trump's potential summit with Chairman Kim, is not simply a by-product of this nation's Asean chairmanship. It signifies America's recognition that South-east Asia's centrality is core to a successful free and open Indo-Pacific.
South-east Asia is the strategic hinge point of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The nations of this region will determine whether the vast Indo-Pacific is governed by the rule of law or the use of arbitrary power. Individually and collectively, Asean members are at the crucial nexus for deciding whether the coming decades will expand or shrink individual liberty, national sovereignty, and the freedom to navigate the global commons.
The United States' Asia policy has been most forcefully articulated by the Department of Defence, which is guided by the longest-serving national security principal, Secretary James Mattis. A significant budget increase underscores the administration's commitment to maintaining the strength of the US Armed Forces, which will in turn help to underwrite a balance of power, both by deterring conflict and prioritising cooperation.
ASEAN'S PARTNER OF CHOICE
The US remains the partner of choice for some of Asean's most critical challenges. US military, intelligence and law enforcement support for countering terrorism and political violence is unstinting - as reflected by the successful demise of the Maute group in the southern Philippines.
The US will remain an invaluable partner and ally to South-east Asia when all seek to uphold regional order and norms in the South China Sea. China's escalatory and revisionist behaviour will increasingly disrupt the freedom of navigation and overflight. President Xi Jinping presiding over the largest naval pageant in China's history, Beijing's reported delivery of anti-ship cruise and surface-to-air missiles to the Spratly Islands, and the decision to land bombers on the Paracels, represent a crude play for military primacy that encroaches on the security of the entire region.
President Xi's 2015 pledge not to militarise the Spratly Islands and rejection of the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which disavowed China's nine-dash line maritime claim, have no basis in contemporary international law and are a fundamental rejection of a "free and open Indo-Pacific".
What is to stop China from determining that its historic claims override neighbouring countries' sovereignty or from disrupting the nearly US$4 trillion (S$5.36 trillion) of global trade passing through South China Sea waters each year?
China's militarisation of the South China Sea is precisely why the US decided to rescind the People's Liberation Army's invitation to participate in this year's Rimpac exercise, which is designed to promote maritime cooperation and the freedom of navigation.
But an effective, sustained response will require more than symbolic gestures and the US acting alone. This is where other regional maritime powers - including but not limited to the so-called Quad nations of Japan, Australia and India - can voluntarily contribute so much.
Singapore, Vietnam and other Asean members must use the Code of Conduct process to contest further militarisation of the region.
Diplomatically, the US must sustain engagement at ADMM-Plus and other associated Asean events. President Trump's attendance at the Apec summit in Papua New Guinea later this year would send a positive signal of continued US engagement at a time when Pacific Island nations are buffeted with inducements and pressure from outside forces.
However, the US cannot exert or inspire leadership simply by showing up. Innovative thinking and action are still required to link American competitiveness and entrepreneurship with the economic development and technological and human advancement of the people of South-east Asia and the wider region. Announcing a credible and detailed agenda for pursuing meaningful and robust trade relations with South-east Asian nations would be a welcome development.
NOT A BINARY CHOICE
Many Asean capitals have voiced concern that a "free and open Indo-Pacific" is overly focused on enhancing the Quad and will leave South-east Asia disempowered in its own backyard. This couldn't be further from the truth. By strengthening quadrilateral cooperation, the US is setting the stage for a credible and sustainable complement and alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Asean centrality and independence is a fundamental component of any truly free and open Indo-Pacific. Additionally, a successful US strategy will not require South-east Asia to choose between the US and China's development opportunities. Instead, US officials will be confident in the qualitative advantage of their proposals.
Asean should be further encouraged that US support for a free and open Indo-Pacific extends across branches of government. A bipartisan coalition in Congress recently introduced the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, which supports a free and open Indo-Pacific and rules-based order by authorising US$1.5 billion annually over a five-year period to further bolster US presence. The legislation covers both military and economic engagement, and aims to work with treaty allies and South-east Asian nations to strengthen maritime and cyber security, non-proliferation, the freedom of navigation, and more. Congress would be well-advised to take up this consensus legislation and speedily approve it.
Even if these steps gain momentum, political and structural challenges lie ahead for America's strategy. Midterm elections this November are a predictable distraction. And the administration's quest for fair trade is roiling not just multilateral trade but also sowing fears of a possible trade war between the world's two largest economies. These challenges are manageable, but may further impair the execution of US regional strategy.
Developments in Asia are quickening. Never has there been a more important time for the US to deepen its comprehensive engagement with South-east Asia than the present one. Over the next six months, the Trump administration needs to step up its game here with security, diplomatic and economic policies that tangibly reflect America's enduring and mounting commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
• Patrick M. Cronin is the senior director of, and Abigail C. Grace the research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2018, with the headline 'Asean is the fulcrum of a free and open Indo-Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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