In February 1986, Scot Marciel was driving home after midnight and went past what he assumed was just another protest near military facilities in downtown Manila. The gathering, less than a year into his first overseas assignment with the Foreign Service, turned out to be the early days of the Philippine People Power revolution, leading to the end of the Ferdinand Marcos regime. This was just one of several times during his 35-year career in the State Department that Marciel would find himself witnessing historic moments in Southeast Asia and in the U.S. relationship with the countries of the region.
That illustrious career includes being the first U.S. diplomat to work in Hanoi since the end of the Vietnam War and serving as the first U.S. ambassador for ASEAN Affairs and as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and Myanmar.
Marciel, Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at FSI and affiliated with APARC, has distilled his experiences and observations into his new book, Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia (Shorenstein APARC/ Rowman & Littlefield, 2023). In it, he offers his on-the-ground account of the ups and downs of critical U.S. relationships in the region — focusing on the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia — and examines the role of ASEAN and China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
To mark the book’s release, we talked with Marciel about recent events in the region and his views on how the United States should approach Southeast Asian countries in the context of China’s efforts to sow closer ties with them. Watch the conversation:
A Return to the Philippines
The Philippines under President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr. is now allowing U.S. forces expanded access to four of its bases. Marciel, who first met Marcos, Jr. as the provincial governor of Ilocos Norte in 1985, expressed some surprise at the Philippine president’s rapid shift to strengthen the country’s alliance with the United States. He noted, however, that even in the last year of the Duterte presidency, which frequently was at odds with the United States, there was some recognition in the Philippines that the relationship with China wasn’t bearing the fruit that had been anticipated. Marciel also pointed out that the deal with the United States does not mean Marcos has abandoned China: he is still working on keeping the relationship with Beijing healthy and visiting Japan, another important partner.
Although there is some Philippine civil opposition to the renewed presence of U.S. forces, Marciel believes that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will provide an opportunity for a “more modern and equal partnership,” and hopefully one that can supplant memories of the U.S. colonial history in the Philippines.
Southeast Asian Charm Competition?
As concern continues to rise about a possible invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China, some have questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. capability to compete with China, particularly in terms of a diplomatic offensive. Marciel responded to a recent New York Times article on U.S. and Chinese efforts to “woo” Indonesia. As China continues to seal trade deals in Southeast Asia, some of which are part of its Belt and Road Initiative, we asked whether the United States can compete with China’s free-flowing cash.
Marciel, taking a step back, cautions that “Indonesia is not a prize to be won,” and that we should not be “scoring diplomatic relations like a sporting event” when we look at improving ties with the countries of Southeast Asia. Indonesia, for example, has a long history with the Non-Aligned Movement, so while it attempts to attract foreign investment, it will resist aligning with any one major power. China tends to offer attractive investment packages with minimal conditions, but “you can’t always count on those investments to happen,” notes Marciel, and even when they do, there can be issues with corruption, as well as social and environmental consequences. The United States tries to put together investments that consider issues like labor and the environment, but Marciel believes that “sometimes we aim a little high” and the conditions make U.S. offerings less attractive.
The Continuing Crisis in Myanmar
We spoke with Marciel just after the second anniversary of the 2021 coup in Myanmar. He began his term as U.S. ambassador to that country in 2016, just before Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s new government was about to take office. As he puts it, it was a time of “euphoria,” not only in Myanmar but also in terms of U.S. hopes for democracy there. It turned out to be a difficult four years for Myanmar and Marciel, as the Rohingya crisis repeatedly erupted and the Myanmar military reacted with violent operations that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya out of Myanmar. As Marciel relates in his book, he soon found that even using the word “Rohingya” in U.S. embassy statements could create a diplomatic crisis.
Even with the horrific Rohingya genocide, Marciel cautiously notes that by 2020, when he left the country, most people in Myanmar had more opportunity and freedom under four years of a democratically elected government—the Rohingya themselves being the obvious exception. But in 2021, the “military coup basically eliminated that hope and opportunity.”
Marciel doesn’t hold much hope for an end to the coup anytime soon, but he does see at least one “positive development” over the last two years. During the worst of the Rohingya crisis, many in the majority Bamar community did not believe the reports of massacres, or even worse, did not care. But now, after two years of military rule, “more and more Myanmar people are explicitly recognizing the legitimate grievances and the suffering of many of the ethnic minority populations, including the Rohingya, over the past years, and [there is] some recognition that they were fed a lot of propaganda for a long time about what was really happening.”
Establishing Relations with Vietnam
One of Marciel’s great success stories is the normalization of U.S. ties with Vietnam. It was an improbable success with any number of obstacles likely to prevent it from happening, not the least being the debate about the fate of U.S. prisoners of war and servicemen reported as missing in action. Saigon fell in 1975, and yet in 1995, just 20 years later, diplomatic relations were restored and the U.S. embassy opened in Hanoi.
According to Marciel, it took patience, pragmatism, but also the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. No longer able to rely on Soviet help for their economy, the Vietnamese became more open to work with the United States, particularly on POW-MIA issues, allowing Vietnamese imprisoned in re-education camps to flee the country, and withdrawing Vietnamese forces from Cambodia.
Marciel sees the U.S.-Vietnam relationship today as a “good-news story” that shows the degree of progress that can be attained when two countries are willing to be rational and work together. The United States still has significant concerns about human rights in Vietnam yet “both sides have agreed to talk about that issue, but not let it define or limit the relationship excessively.”
How the United States Can Improve Relations in Southeast Asia
When pressed for a prescription on what the United States can do to further improve its relationships with the countries in the region, Marciel said, “In brief, show up and engage consistently, with humility, and with a focus on the countries that we’re talking to, not on China, because what they’re looking for, for the most part is, ‘Can we count on the United States being a long-term partner?’”
By ensuring the reliability of the partnership, countries in Southeast Asia have more freedom of maneuver, and they can, if necessary, be more capable to “make decisions China might not like.” The flip side of that—the failure to show up at presidential and high governmental levels, like what happened during the Trump administration—means “you’ve undone all the good that you had done in previous years by investing in those relationships.” The price of isolationism, of neglecting U.S. diplomatic relations in Southeast Asia, is that those countries lose confidence in the United States as a reliable partner.