Last week, President Biden met with the leaders of nine Southeast Asian nations — the first such gathering since 2016 and the first ever at the White House. The event was greatly overshadowed by the ongoing war in Ukraine, but it took on added significance precisely because of the events in Europe. East Asia/Southeast Asia is very different from Eastern Europe/Ukraine, but viewed through a strategic lens, there are some remarkable analogies.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is all about the imperial ambitions of an authoritarian great power that seeks to dominate and control smaller countries on its periphery — and the role of other European nations helping the targeted victims defend themselves. Those European efforts are crucially supported by a distant superpower, the U.S., that sees its own interests and values under attack. In Southeast Asia, including the surrounding maritime space, we have another region confronting a giant authoritarian neighbor with imperial ambitions — China.
The Southeast Asian leaders who gathered in Washington were, of course, keenly aware of events in Europe — events that pushed news of their own meetings off of the front pages. For some of the leaders, Ukraine was a competing news story, but others saw something more — something significant.
Since the beginning of the Cold War in the early 1950s, Western Europe has been organized with the U.S. in a military alliance dedicated to the defense of its members against a threatening and hostile Russia. It was not a theoretical exercise. Stalin’s Kremlin had imposed a Russian military occupation that extended from the eastern border of Poland to the center of Berlin. The only thing that stopped Stalin from sending the Red Army westward was the presence of NATO that included a major U.S. military component. NATO became history’s premier example of a serious, well-resourced, well-led and successful multi-member military alliance.
After the Cold War ended, there was an extended debate whether the alliance still had a raison d’etre, and perhaps should be disbanded. Instead, thanks in part to the efforts of the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the alliance was expanded to include a suite of new members in Central and Eastern Europe — all seeking security vis-a-vis a possible renewed Russian threat in the future. Still, there were real questions whether a post-Cold War NATO could actually respond to a serious military challenge. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin was sure that the answer was no — that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met by denunciations and a few economic sanctions, but little in the way of an effective military response. That confident assumption turned out to be spectacularly wrong. NATO, led by the U.S., has mounted a very potent effort to support Ukraine’s heroic resistance with sanctions, intelligence — and weapons.
Southeast Asian leaders met in Washington in the midst of all this. For the more strategically acute, notably Singapore and Vietnam, the events in Europe have profound implications for their own security situation. Like the Europeans, they do not want to face a giant, ambitious neighbor alone. They are realists; they have no confidence that even a united Southeast Asia, on its own, can cope with China. As with the Europeans, the only possible remedy lies overseas — with the U.S. In Europe, American support has been sanctified by the shared sacrifices of World War II and codified in the NATO alliance. In Southeast Asia, nothing like that exists. The U.S. shed blood in the region in World War II, but that occurred fighting alone or with British colonial forces. The one major American war in the region, was fought against a regional state — Vietnam.
Early in the Cold War, the Eisenhower administration had ambitions to create a Southeast Asian analog to NATO, but that effort was effectively stillborn. It did produce two bilateral military alliances — with Thailand and the Philippines. Both provided important logistical support during the Vietnam War. Today, however, the fabric of both alliances, while still formally intact, is badly tattered. The U.S. does have two other serious security partners in the region — Singapore and (ironically) Vietnam — but neither is a formal treaty ally.
For Southeast Asia, the challenge posed by China is increasingly stark. A large part of the China challenge is economic and one of the region’s most urgent concerns is whether the U.S. government will