The death toll in Myanmar is rising as members of the armed forces crack down on the civil resistance movement sparked by the February 1 military coup. The use of indiscriminate force is a familiar tactic for Myanmar’s military. The same regiments that now attack civilians with live fire also mounted a brutal campaign against the Rohingya.
As former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel led a 500-person Country Team during the difficult Rohingya crisis and a challenging time for both Myanmar’s democratic transition and the U.S.-Myanmar relationship. The current conflict, however, could lead to a civil war with far-reaching consequences for geopolitics in Asia. “I think that there is a big difference in the present situation,” says Amb. Marciel, speaking at a recent virtual conversation hosted by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program. “The Myanmar military is not a group that you can easily have a useful, productive dialogue with. My argument that we should try to continue to engage as much as possible is a general argument, but I am not sure it applies in this particular case.”
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Few American diplomats can match the years of experience in multiple Southeast Asian countries that Marciel has accumulated during his career in the U.S. Foreign Service. In addition to his assignments as U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar and Indonesia, Mr. Marciel was the first U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia and served at U.S. missions in the Philippines, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Turkey, among other roles.
Marciel addressed various policy questions from the manuscript, including what priority ends and means should inform U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia, how the Myanmar crisis is challenging U.S. foreign policy, what drives the prosperous U.S.-Vietnam relationship, and what the prospects are for America’s relations with Thailand and Indonesia.
In exploring these and other questions, Marciel was joined by a second distinguished speaker, Catharin Dalpino, professor emeritus at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, whose expertise on Southeast Asia spans academe, government, and NGOs. She is the co-editor and co-writer of a recent Asia Foundation report, “Urgent Issues in U.S.-Southeast Asian Relations for 2021.”
A Southeast Asia Pivot
It has been challenging for U.S. policymakers to understand Southeast Asia, Marciel notes, because its nations are immensely diverse and, with the likely exception of Vietnam and Singapore, they do not work Washington particularly well. Adding the absence of a dominant institution in the region with which Washington can easily engage, these factors help explain the tendency of U.S. policymakers to see Southeast Asia somewhat as a sideshow, despite the region’s growing importance.
Granted, at various times the United States was heavily engaged and invested in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. But with the end of the Vietnam War and certainly with the end of the Cold War, Marciel argues, the United States lost the prism through which it previously looked at the region. In the lack of a strategic regional focus, there has been a tendency in Washington to calibrate the relationships with particular Southeast Asian nations based on its assessment of their progress on issues such as human rights, democracy, or trade, but the overall engagement with the region as a whole has been neglected.
“The U.S. partnership or rather series of partnerships with Southeast Asia have underperformed and disappointed to some extent, and hence the question going forward, given the growing importance of the region and given the rise of China, is what can be done to improve that partnership with the region in the coming years,” Marciel says.
A Balancing Act in the Era of Great-Power Competition
Dalpino, in response, emphasizes that engagement is not a silver bullet, as is the case with Myanmar. “Engagement will get us perhaps a more sympathetic hearing but it will not necessarily deliver to us the interests that we are seeking, and I think that we need to be clear with ourselves and with our Southeast Asian interlocutors about how those interests can diverge.”
Another paradigm shaping Washington’s perception of Southeast Asia is the U.S.-China rivalry. We must not force Southeast Asian countries to choose between the United States and China, “but if we want to sell Southeast Asia to the power structure in Washington as being more important, then we're going to have to play the China card to some extent,” Dalpino notes.
“The key for us is to bring our game to Southeast Asia policy,” argues Marciel, by which he means to build confidence in the region by engaging with it as a consistent, reliable partner with shared interests. In his view, the best way to advance these shared interests is to give Southeast Asian nations as much freedom of maneuver as possible vis-a-vis China.
“Rather than going there and talking to them about why China is a problem and why they should be tougher on China,” Marciel claims, “it is more useful to build a strong partnership with the different countries in Southeast Asia and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which, by itself, is not an anti-China policy at all.” It is a delicate balance between not making the U.S.-Southeast Asia relationship all about China, on the one hand, while being aware of China and the impact of U.S. policy on the relationship between Southeast Asia and China, on the other hand.