Last week, Southeast Asia scored a long overdue diplomatic victory. The US-ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Nations) Summit was finally held in Washington, DC and hosted by the White House – the first time in ASEAN’s 55-year history.
Symbolic victory aside, what the Southeast Asian leaders walked away with was rather meager – a $150 million “economic engagement” package. 150 million may sound like a lot, but averaging that amount to the roughly 680 million people living in Southeast Asia gives the region less than a quarter per person.
This amount is even more laughable when comparing to how much capital Southeast Asian tech giants are attracting. GoTo (the merged company between two Indonesian tech unicorns, Gojek and Tokopedia) raised $1.1 billion USD last month in its IPO. Grab, the Singapore-based SuperApp, raised $4 billion USD last year from the largest SPAC-IPO to date. (For more on Grab, please see my previous post “SPAC-ing the Southeast Asia Story”.)
Why is the United States so “cheap” when it comes to supporting Southeast Asia, even though the region is a seemingly obvious strategic ally to balance China’s rise?
A Dysfunctional Romance
The historical relationship between the US and ASEAN can feel like a dysfunctional long-distance romantic relationship. The dysfunction can be broken down into four phases.
The first three phases are well-articulated in the book, “The ASEAN Miracle”, by seasoned Singaporean diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani. The fourth phase is, in my opinion, what we are going through now. Here’s a short historical overview of these four phases – honeymoon, rejection, reunion, envy:
Phase 1 (Cold War “honeymoon”): ASEAN was created in 1967 during the Cold War with a clear objective to resist the spread of Communism. Because of this anti-Communist orientation, in Mahbubani’s words, “ASEAN was born pro-American”. ASEAN would much rather “date” the US than any other “single” country, and the US was more than willing to “dance”, in order to push back Communism’s global spread at the time. George Shultz, the secretary of state during the Reagan Administration, showed up regularly at the annual ASEAN meeting. The US-ASEAN alliance started out strong; the romance was hot and steamy.
This “honeymoon” phase stopped when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended.
Phase 2 (Post-Cold War “rejection”): as the global hegemon, the US was the hottest person in the club post-Cold War. The spread of communism was no longer a concern, history was apparently “ending” in favor of liberal democracy, and every country wanted to strike up a romance with America. The US became more judgmental and arrogant of the partners it used to need during the Cold War, like ASEAN, and started to reject them. Secretaries of State Christohper Warren and Madeleine Albright began leaving the ASEAN meetings early or skipping them altogether. The US did relatively little to help any Southeast Asian countries during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
This “rejection” phase changed again when 9/11 happened.
Phase 3 (9/11 “reunion”): after the 9/11 attack, the US all of a sudden needed more friends again, especially friends with a large Muslim population. Indonesia is the largest Muslaim country in the world. Malaysia and the Phillippines also have sizable Muslim populations. By and large, the Muslim population in Southeast Asia is quite moderate, which makes it once again a strategically valuable ally to the US in carrying out its global War on Terror. To this end, the US sought to rekindle its romance with ASEAN. And ASEAN, being pro-America at birth and lacking in good local dating alternatives (e.g. India, China), was willing to return to America’s embrace.
This “reunion” phase evolved yet again, as China rose to economic prominence, while the US got stuck in the Middle East quagmire.
Phase 4 (China “envy”): China and Southeast Asian countries have always had a complicated relationship dating back centuries. (A good book on this complexity is “In the Dragon’s Shadow”.) China was not initially a fan of ASEAN, given its anti-Communist, pro-American roots. As China became more wealthy, it began to woo ASEAN closer to its orbit and was actually helpful in stabilizing many Southeast Asian economies during the Asian Financial crisis, around the same time that America decided that ASEAN was no longer that “attractive”. As China’s economic, trade, and investment relationships deepened with ASEAN, the US decided to “Pivot to Asia” after the War on Terror, out of concern for China’s growing wealth, power, and clout in that region. The current phase of the US-Southeast Asia “romance” is less out of “true love” and more to keep a new “suitor” from getting what America has always so easily had and taken for granted.
For the US, a relationship with Southeast Asia has always been transactional and a matter of convenience, just like a friend with benefits – except the benefits have only gone one way.
Friends Without Benefits
Relative to the amount of geopolitical balancing that Southeast Asia can offer for the US, the US has not given the region much in return (as is often the case in a dysfunctional romantic relationship). As discussed above, the Biden administration’s $150 million package is paltry. The Trump administration’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of $1.5 billion is more, but the package is split between East Asia and Southeast Asia, so still not that much.
The US government’s lack of commitment to supporting the region seems to have affected private tech companies’ pace of investment as well. One measurement I like to track is cloud computing data center investment, which I see as a marker of true long-term investment. (Other forms of investment, whether it is VC deals or local hiring, are more ephemeral and can be easily written off or reduced. But once you build a data center, you are stuck with it forever.)
Because of Southeast Asia’s location, its strategic importance has grown in the cloud industry. (For more on this topic, see my previous post “Southeast Asia and the Pacific Light Cable Network”.) Among the top five cloud providers with global scale, three are American (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud Platform), two are Chinese (AliCloud, Tencent Cloud). Here is a breakdown of their current Southeast Asian data center locations and future plans (if any).
- Current: Singapore, Indonesia
- Future: N/A
- Current: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines
- Future: Thailand
- Current: Singapore
- Future: Malaysia, Indonesia
Google Cloud Platform (GCP):
- Current: Singapore, Indonesia
- Future: N/A
- Current: Singapore, Indonesia
- Future: Thailand
Singapore is a table stakes location. Beyond Singapore, however, GCP was first among the American cloud providers to open a data center in Indonesia in 2020. AWS’s Indonesia data center just came online last year. By contrast, AliCloud’s data centers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were released in 2017, 2018, and 2021; its Thailand data center was quietly released earlier this year. Tencent Cloud is trying to match AliCloud’s expansion in Thailand, but won’t face any American competition.
At a glance, it looks like American tech companies are playing catch up to their Chinese counterparts, much in the same way that the US government is trying to do the same and “win back” Southeast Asia’s heart.
Talking the Talk, But Not (Yet) Walking the Walk
In the official White House Joint Vision Statement of the US-ASEAN Summit last week, there were some encouraging sections on technology and innovation. Areas of potential mutual benefit included both traditional elements (e.g. trade) and more cutting-edge elements (e.g. smart manufacturing, fintech, even blockchain applications).
These mentions are encouraging because in order for a US-Southeast Asia relationship to be consistent, sustainable, and mutually beneficial for the long-term, jointly investing in cutting-edge technologies, which all take a long time to mature, must be at the center. That level of alignment and commitment, I believe, is what’s missing in anchoring this relationship, allowing it to wax and wane as a bellwether of the geopolitical wind.
In a sense, the Biden administration is talking the right talk. But of course, we all know that talk is cheap. Near the end of the book, “In the Dragon’s Shadow”, the author Sebastian Strangio cited this line from the historian, Wang Gungwu, when discussing the difference between the US being in Southeast Asia versus China doing the same:
“The Americans have to justify being here. The Chinese on the other hand are just here! It’s their backyard.”
It will take more than a fancy White House state dinner and $150 million bucks to justify America’s commitment to Southeast Asia.
(本篇中文版文章是读者 Ben Yu 做的翻译，我做了一些修改而发表。非常感谢Ben的贡献，《互联》的读者们真伟大！)
上周，东盟取得了一个迟来的外交成果，美国-东盟峰会在华盛顿特区举行，由白宫主办-——在东盟 55 年的历史上这是第一次。
东盟的全称是东南亚国家联盟，包括东南亚的 10 个国家，分别是文莱、柬埔寨、印度尼西亚、老挝、马来西亚、菲律宾、新加坡、泰国、缅甸和越南。
然而，撇开象征性质的胜利不谈，东盟从这次峰会实际得到的只有 1.5 亿美元的经济资助，虽然听起来很多，但是再想想东南亚国家总共大约有 6.8 亿人口，平均到每个人身上就显得没有多少了。
尤其是如果将这个金额和东南亚科技巨头的融资金额相比，就更显得单薄，例如 GoTo（印度尼西亚科技独角兽 Gojek 和 Tokopedia 合并后的公司）上个月在 IPO 中筹集了 11 亿美元。更不用说总部位于新加坡的Grab，创下有史以来最大规模的 SPAC 合并IPO，融资额是 40 亿美元。（如果想要了解更多有关 Grab 的信息，也可以阅读我此前写的文章《SPAC-ing东南亚的故事》。）
如果回顾美国和东盟在不同历史阶段的关系，分分合合的状态看起来就像一段不健康的异地恋，我们可以将其分成 4 个阶段（蜜月期、拒绝期、团聚期、嫉妒期）。
第一阶段（冷战“蜜月期”）：东盟成立于 1967 年冷战期间，当时成立的目的是抵制共产主义扩散。由于这种反共的倾向，用马凯硕的话来说 “东盟天生就是亲美派”，这和里根就任总统期间的美国的倾向不谋而合。当时的国务卿乔治·舒尔茨定期出席一年一度的东盟会议，美国和东盟的关系在这一阶段是非常紧密的。
这种“拒绝期”在 9·11 事件发生后再次改变。
第四阶段（中国“嫉妒期”）：中国和东南亚国家的复杂关系可以一路追溯到几个世纪以前，如果想要了解这段关系，有一本值得阅读的书叫《In the Dragon's Shadow》。由于东盟反共亲美的根源，直到中国经济进入高速发展阶段后，中国才开始和东盟建立友好关系，包括在亚洲金融危机期间帮助稳定了许多东南亚经济体，与此同时，美国对东盟的态度则越来越冷淡。随着中国与东盟的经济、贸易和投资关系不断加深，出于对中国在该地区日益增长的财富、实力和影响力的担忧，美国在反恐战争后决定将注意力转向亚洲。从这个角度看，美国和东盟目前的紧密关系更像是对中国崛起的一种防御策略。
相对于东南亚为美国带来的地缘政治上的平衡价值，美国并没有给出什么相应的回报，拜登政府给出的 1.5 亿美元经济资助算很“抠门儿”了，特朗普政府的《亚洲再保证倡议法案》虽然在经济资助规模上有提升，拨了 15 亿美元，但考虑到该计划是在东亚和东南亚之间做了分配，算下来也不多。
可以看到所有云计算平台都在新加坡设有中心，除此之外的则零零散散，印度尼西亚的第一家美国云是 2020 年开设的谷歌云，AWS 则是在去年刚刚上线。相比之下，阿里云在马来西亚、印度尼西亚和菲律宾的数据中心分别建设于 2017 年、2018 年和 2021 年，其泰国的数据中心则在今年早些时候也悄悄开始启动。腾讯云的布局紧跟阿里云，但同时期的美国公司则都还没有考虑泰国。
“The Americans have to justify being here. The Chinese on the other hand are just here! It’s their backyard.” （《互联》非官方翻译：“对于美国来说，要想介入东南亚需要证明自己，有充分的理由，而对于中国来说，并不需要，地域相邻的关系不言自明。”）
对于美国和东盟的关系到底如何，还需要更多的时间观察，但可以肯定的是，仅一次白宫主持的峰会和晚宴加 1.5 亿美元的资助是远远不够的。