Incidentally, Prof Bilahari Kausikan argues that the focus in Washington on the maritime competition with China misses the importance of the land; “without greater U.S. engagement, Beijing’s dam-building along the upper reaches of the Mekong River gives it a potential stranglehold over the five ASEAN members through which the river runs.
“The dams that China has and continues to construct on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which runs through the five mainland ASEAN member states, not only pose an immense ecological hazard but, together with north-south railways and highways, could entrench a dependence on Beijing that would reshape the strategic geography of Southeast Asia and could turn the boundaries between southwestern China and Southeast Asia into just lines on maps” he points out.
His suggestion is that the Mekong should be approached strategically in the broader context of U.S. policy toward the Indo-Pacific rather than piecemeal as a cluster of discrete technical or environmental issues, such as water management or climate change.
Kausikan has a second piece of advice for the Biden Administration too. “ Washington should avoid assuming that the United States’ decentralized democracy, in which distrust of the state is ingrained, is well understood in Southeast Asia, where the centralized government is the norm and a strong state is an aspiration—even if not always achieved in practice.
Ideological efforts in the vein of Biden’s Summit for Democracy, convened last December, risk alienating partners in Southeast Asia. An event framed in terms of a supposedly universal contest between democracy and authoritarianism—both protean terms—would limit rather than expand support for Washington in the region……In general, Southeast Asians neither find all American values attractive nor all aspects of the Chinese system abhorrent.
An approach that invokes a clash between democracy and autocracy will only risk alienating governments that do not look at the world in such absolutist and simplistic binary categories and have no wish to be forced into them. The Biden administration would be ill-advised to pursue such ideological projects much further in Southeast Asia.”
In sum, a comprehensive strategy that includes the importance of both land and sea in Southeast Asia and the imperativeness of the QUAD being a partner of ASEAN are challenges in America’s Indo-Pacific policy at the moment, a challenge that is shared indeed by all the QUAD countries to thwart the Chinese domination in the region.