Can America Afford a Commitment Trap in South and Southeast Asia?

Strategic partnerships and alliances are usually a very complex military and political undertaking. Their impact is also intricate to assess because each state party to such arrangements views their position both jointly and severally. Similarly, constructing objectives and seeking relevance in action is also a bifurcated exercise with respect to partnership and partners involved. Though they are a convenient way to magnify operability through common objectives, principal states usually have to invest extensively in constructing, managing and providing relevance for such partnerships. This also entails designing a stratagem that not only offers maximum dividends but also where singularity of each partner’s national security commitments is preserved.

Under the Truman Doctrine, the US designed a complex layer of alliances, strategic partnerships and international investments aimed at preventing communism from proliferating in newly decolonized states after World War II. American foreign policy as enunciated in the post-Quarantine Speech by President Roosevelt echoed how America would see the world as regions, not as independent states, consequently constructing overwatch through net security providers of that region. For NATO, the policy proved successful primarily because of NATO’s symbiotic relationship with the US through their interaction throughout World War II. On the contrary, America’s experience with other, similar coalitions were not as successful especially in South and Southeast Asia. The institution of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was perforated with political landmines, strategic fatigue, economic destitution and overreaching military ambitions of the receiving partners, and both arrangements eventually disbanded. This experience provides sufficient learning for the US to reevaluate its priorities with new coalitions being formed such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD or simply Quad).

The relationship between the US and China is not stable and is gradually progressing towards possible friction or even military confrontation. Both superpowers are continually engaged in a quid pro quo of strategies, attempting to secure strategic partnerships and alliances to bridge their gaps between their geopolitical and geoeconomic objectives through geostrategic bloc activity. This means that the US and China end up mirroring each other’s tactics and promoting recessive sentiments in global economic, political and diplomatic activity. The level of engagement in this atmosphere is not like the Cold War as both superpowers are moving cautiously and carefully in their tactical dispositions against the other. For the US however, the situation is questionable; implementing the Truman Doctrine’s bloc arrangement may have run its course in South and Southeast Asia. The fact that the Quad may be a grandfathered in version of Cold War bloc dimensions is vivid and cannot be termed as something entirely novel. By providing India with military and economic assistance as well as introducing joint military exercises with India and Southeast Asian nations, America is replaying the Truman playbook, a decision that presupposes that Beijing is duplicating the Soviet script.

After the Baghdad Pact and the formation of CENTO, following US investments in the region, a distinguished volatility was observed in the form of wars and escalation of pending disputes. A similar trend was observed in Southeast Asia in its SEATO commitment, following the Manila Pact. Reiterating or indicating the pursuit of a similar trajectory is neither desirable nor advisable maybe because contemporary dynamics between the US and China are not as that between the US and USSR.

South Asia and Southeast Asia are intensely engaged with Beijing, and some of the most prominent US partners in both regions are entangled with China through economic arrangements. Despite its commitment to American geostrategic objectives, India continues to remain within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS arrangement, and a rising bilateral trade volume with China. ASEAN member states also have an active Chinese presence through the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit. Unlike the USSR, Beijing has interacted extensively through economic and trade investments, regional connectivity initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, and continues to gradually albeit cautiously, increase its military footprint in associated regions. In this scenario, the Truman Doctrine may not be a viable approach in aiming to quarantine China, especially when fracturing within strategic partnerships is visible. ASEAN would not be interested in independently increasing its military posture, eventually transferring the entire pressure on the US to extend security commitments.

India has a continuous engagement with China and Pakistan which makes its security situation more personal than general. New Delhi expects the US to accelerate its military commitments, which means that the American security strategy would be terribly stretched across the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Coupled with the Russia-Ukraine War, America would have to expansively redesign its security architecture which demands enormous economic obligations. American partners in South and Southeast Asia have done little domestically to encourage confidence as NATO does; a déjà vu of CENTO and SEATO. For America, the Truman Doctrine playbook should be retired to avoid a commitment trap that would not only send shockwaves in its economic position but also overstress its global military commitments.

NATO’s dependence on American military assurances, SEATO and CENTO doing more harm than good, exhaustive global security services, and growing demands by regional partners are some of the legacies of how the Truman Doctrine impacted the US over the decades. Engaging China has led to many other uncertain frameworks like AUKUS and ANZUS and friction between partner states in successfully conducting such coalitions. Even though it is desirable to inflate global security obligations to maintain a grip over global security, the role of partners as dependents is not an advisable situation. Much like the Warsaw Pact, the US may end up being under severe stress of not only maintaining a security safeguard for its partners but may have to deal with individual adventurism undertaken by those partners. These adventurist actions, defensive or offensive, would insist upon the American security umbrella being a principal guarantee against possible repercussions.

The Truman Doctrine was a Cold War construct after a careful assessment of the adversary. Reapplying that playbook in present-day circumstances cannot be termed viable. Geoeconomic entanglements through complex organizational structures does not allow blocs to be definitely formed, and demanding unqualified support from partners may not be reality. South and Southeast Asia are wary of Beijing’s tactics but their domestic positions are equally precarious. Unlike NATO, both regions are significantly fragmented and view American assistance as an opportunity to alleviate national security commitments; falling behind in their promises to the coalition itself. Learning from past experience, the US needs to retire from the Truman Doctrine and design a new foreign policy paradigm based on proactive engagement and a relatively reduced central presence. This would allow partner states to consider national capacity building and a corresponding attitude, two experiences from SEATO and CENTO. America cannot afford to be part of an escalatory relationship where unchecked adventurism by partners causes it to stretch its national security commitments or their inaction causes the US to take unnecessary first steps.

The Cold War environment may be a reference to how the US-China relationship is developing but its dynamics are entirely dissimilar and the fault lines are either too discreet, too fragile or too entangled with global economic, diplomatic and military hazards. Beijing’s playbook is not one that can be addressed either with Roosevelt’s Quarantine or with Truman’s interdependence framework. Neither South nor Southeast Asia are calibrated to suit the Cold War enterprise, and their commitments towards Beijing are directly related to how both regions are geopolitically and geostrategically fragmented.

Washington may have to design a capacity building foreign policy with a lesser direct role and a greater focus on dis-incentivizing partners to remain committed to Beijing. The Truman Doctrine was based on an ideological threat perception signaling economic, political, military and diplomatic fallout; but the current situation is the opposite. For American engagement in South and Southeast Asia, reducing chances of a commitment trap implores retiring its Truman Doctrine approach and recalibrating how it intends to engage regional stakeholders that are synchronized, or are willing to synchronize, with American foreign policy objectives. Perhaps transitioning from a dependence model to one based on interdependence may be a viable foreign policy evolution that the Truman Doctrine may not be able to offer in its original state.

Muhammad Sharreh Qazi

The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science, University of the Punjab, and a PhD in International Relations. He is also author of the book ‘Escalation Patterns in South Asia: Future of Credible Minimum Deterrence’. He can be reached at shareh.polsc@pu.edu.pk

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