Southeast Asian nations are stuck in “troubling divisions” over Myanmar’s coup crisis and China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, according to Scot Marciel, a veteran United States diplomat.
And the former US ambassador to Indonesia and Myanmar, who has just published the book Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia, argues the US should use this time not to focus on countering Chinese influence in the region, but instead to prioritise its own engagement efforts.
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Washington should focus “more on showing itself to be a consistent, reliable, trusted, and good partner across the board”, Marciel told Al Jazeera.
Imperfect Partners is a hybrid of personal memoir and foreign policy analysis of relations between the US and Southeast Asia, based on Marciel’s decades-long diplomatic career.
Joining the State Department in 1985, he was the first US diplomat to be posted to Hanoi since the Vietnam War. His career took him across the region, from witnessing the People Power revolt in the Philippines to responding to coups in Thailand and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
Marciel retired from the foreign service in 2022 and is currently an Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University’s Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Al Jazeera spoke to Marciel about his book and regional politics.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Al Jazeera: Imperfect Partners covers different countries in Southeast Asia over an extended period. The Philippines and Vietnam are strengthening their relations with the US, while Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos appear to be firmly in China’s orbit. Are divisions in Southeast Asia deepening amid big power rivalry?
Scot Marciel: There are certainly some troubling divisions within Southeast Asia, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute them primarily to the US-China rivalry, and I don’t see a division within ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] between a pro-China and a pro-American group.
What we’re seeing is all the countries of Southeast Asia wanting to have good relations with China and the US. Some will lean more one way than the other, depending on the issue and the time, but they’re also working very hard to bolster their relations with other countries such as Japan, Australia and India.
The divisions are concerning when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the situation in Myanmar, and the South China Sea, which may have some relationship to the US-China rivalry. But that rivalry isn’t the cause of the South China Sea tension.
Al Jazeera: The US and Vietnam upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership recently. This represents a massive change from several decades ago when Ho Chi Minh’s regime and the US were fighting each other in the Vietnam War. You were the first US diplomat to work in Hanoi since the end of the Vietnam War. Could you tell us more about what it was like back then?
Scot Marciel: I arrived in Hanoi in August of 1993. We still didn’t have diplomatic relations. But we, over the previous handful of years, had begun talking. The Vietnamese, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which they had depended on, were looking to diversify their relationships but also build economic partnerships because they had begun their economic reform efforts.
For the US, it was more about healing the divisions from the war. At the end of the Cold War, the US wasn’t looking at it so strategically, but we were very interested in getting Vietnam support for a Cambodian peace process.
When I first arrived, Vietnam’s reforms had been under way for only a few years. It was still quite poor but you could feel the energy in the country. You could see lots of little shops opening up. During those early days, we were trying to build basic trust after the war by working on issues that were in effect legacies of the war, such as accounting for missing Americans.
The economic relationship began to develop rapidly after those early years, and that in my view has driven the relationship ever since. Very quickly it became a trade and investment relationship and broadened to include health, climate change, a little bit of security and so on. The upgrade to a comprehensive strategic partnership has a significant economic component, with both countries seeing an opportunity for Vietnam to play a bigger role in global supply chains.
Al Jazeera: You were ambassador to Indonesia. Indonesia’s presidential election will take place soon, in February next year. What’s at stake in the upcoming election in terms of geopolitics and what the US is watching?
Scot Marciel: Indonesia’s transition to democracy is one of the more underappreciated stories of Southeast Asia. It’s truly a remarkable achievement.
If you look back at the Soeharto years, and then in 1998, and the next several years, they marked a very turbulent transition to democracy, but the transition has held up and deserves a lot of admiration.
The elections next year will hopefully reinforce that democracy. The Indonesians have run good elections, very transparent and fair, with high voter turnout.
In terms of geopolitics, one never knows for sure. But there appears to be a consensus in favour of what Indonesians call a free and active foreign policy. They’re not going to suddenly align with any major powers. I think Indonesia will continue to play a very strong, independent role within ASEAN and within the broader world, and will still speak with their very own Indonesian voice on regional and global issues.
Al Jazeera: Laos is taking over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2024. What do you expect to change regarding the South China Sea and Myanmar under the leadership of Laos?
Scot Marciel: ASEAN member states agree on a lot of issues but also disagree on some important ones, including the South China Sea, where the disagreement is mostly between those who have claims and those who don’t and therefore don’t want to pick a fight with Beijing.
I’d be surprised if Laos would lead a major change regarding the crisis in Myanmar. ASEAN doesn’t really know what to do. Even under Indonesia’s chairmanship, with all due respect, the bloc didn’t do all that much. There’ll unlikely be anything dramatic under Laos.
Laos may be more inclined to engage with the State Administration Council than Indonesia. I assume bringing the Burmese junta back to ASEAN’s top political meetings is a decision of the whole ASEAN, instead of the chair. Laos could certainly take a trip to Naypyidaw and talk to the generals, but that – while unfortunate – wouldn’t change much on the ground.
Al Jazeera: How have China’s diplomacy and behaviour changed during your decades-long diplomatic career? The US appears keen to counter China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Scot Marciel: When I started in the mid-80s, China wasn’t a big factor in Southeast Asia. It was in the early days of Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms and kept a relatively low profile. It was also coming out of that era when Beijing backed communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia. For more than 20 years beginning in the late 1980s, China increased its engagement and economic ties with all the Southeast Asian countries.
From around 2008 onwards, we started seeing China shifting from a charm offensive to being a little bit more muscular in its diplomacy, particularly in the South China Sea. In recent years, Chinese diplomacy could be quite assertive and even aggressive – throwing its weight around.
China’s influence has increased significantly. That’s a fact. I think there’s an unfortunate tendency to worry about China because it has influence, as opposed to worrying about specific Chinese behaviour that is problematic, such as in the South China Sea
The US should focus less on countering China, because China’s going to be there and countries are going to want to have the relationship, and more on showing itself to be a consistent, reliable, trusted and good partner across the board.
I think the US in general has done that, but not always with the consistency that the region would like to see. It’s been lagging on the economic side, most notably by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So Washington should focus on improving its own efforts in the region, rather than countering China.
Al Jazeera: Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn brought up the US Burma Act in a column and warned of a ‘mini proxy war’ in Myanmar. Is this based on a misunderstanding about the Burma Act?
Scot Marciel: With all due respect to my good friend Kavi, I don’t see the Burma Act or anything else that the US is doing is in any way stoking a proxy war. Between the US and China, only one of the two countries is providing weapons to one party in this conflict, and it’s not the US.
America has offered rhetorical and diplomatic support, as well as humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar. After all, we have to remember the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly don’t want the military to be in power. This is a horrific junta that has no popular support. The US very much sympathises with and supports the people of Myanmar, but it’s not providing weapons.
The Myanmar crisis is not at all about the US and China. It’s about what’s going on inside Myanmar and the Myanmar people saying, ‘We’ve had it with the military. We need to get them out once and for all.’ I think they’re right about it. It’s unfortunate that so many countries are not supporting them, with some neighbours even supporting the junta.
I do fear that the Burma Act may have led some in China to worry excessively that the resistance was some US-backed group, and that misunderstanding led Beijing to be more supportive of the junta.
China enjoyed perfectly good relations with a democratically elected government under Aung San Suu Kyi. If and when democratic forces return to power in Myanmar, they will want to have good relations with China, too. That makes sense. So Beijing doesn’t need to worry about the resistance being a US proxy and should not see the crisis there as a US-China matter.
The Burma Act expresses support for the restoration of democracy and offers the possibility of nonlethal assistance but not weapons. This is about people who have been brutalised by a horrific military for decades saying, ‘Enough. We want to restore our own power’. They’re not doing this at anyone’s behest.
Al Jazeera: Russia has kept a very high profile and gone further than China in backing the Burmese junta, such as recent talks about supporting the regime’s ambition to develop nuclear energy. Is Moscow’s behaviour in Myanmar and other parts of the region troubling?
Scot Marciel: We can see every day in the news what kind of destructive power Russia is and its support for the Burmese junta reflects that attitude: It is an absolutely, completely amoral and unprincipled foreign policy, and an opportunity to sell weapons.
Moscow is also seeking to expand its influence, although I don’t think it’s ever going to be very influential in Myanmar. It’s creating chaos and suffering. Myanmar is the most extreme case. Russia still has some influence in Vietnam and Laos due to a historic legacy of past support.
Compare this with China. Beijing could play a more helpful role in Myanmar’s crisis because the instability isn’t in China’s interest and any democratic government that takes power will likely want to be on good terms with Beijing. But there’s no hope for Russia as long as Putin is in power.