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US and SE Asia as perennial ‘imperfect partners’



As much of the focus in the Indo-Pacific shifts to United States-China hostilities, it is important not to forget the Southeast Asian countries that could be among the first nations impacted by this rivalry.

A new book by former US diplomat Scot Marciel has landed just in time to remind readers about the importance of this complex and dynamic region.

“Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia” is partially a chronicle describing Marciel’s postings in the region over the past 30-plus years and part analysis of US policies toward this eclectic grouping of 10 countries dating back to the mid-1980s. 

Marciel had a front-row seat at a raft of critical turning points in the region during his diplomatic career. He was in the Philippines when then-president Ronald Reagan nudged then-president Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1986 and in Vietnam when then-president Bill Clinton moved to normalize diplomatic relations with Washington’s erstwhile battlefield foe in Hanoi in 1995. 

Marciel in 2012 was ambassador to Indonesia, the region’s largest country and the world’s third-largest democracy, and facilitated the visit by then-president Barack Obama, who had spent several years in Indonesia as a boy. Obama’s visit helped transform what had been a cordial relationship into a comprehensive partnership.

Marciel arrived as ambassador to Myanmar in 2016, a week before Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratically elected government took office. Expectations for the country were high, but by the time he left four years later, those expectations were collapsing.


The primary cause was the military’s brutal abuse and expulsion in 2017 of nearly a million Rohingya minority residents, an event Suu Kyi largely excused and defended. Promising Myanmar-US relations declined sharply. In early 2021, the military seized power and arrested Suu Kyi and many others, prompting widespread protests and civil disobedience.

One particularly interesting section in the Myanmar chapters involves descriptions of discussions Marciel had with Suu Kyi in 2017 about the use of the word “Rohingya” used by most foreigners and the then-state counselor’s preference for a more neutral term like “Rakhine Muslims.”

A second involved his perceptions after several meetings with the military commander who now runs Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Marciel writes that he “appeared superficially smooth, but any detailed conversation about peace and the ethnic minorities quickly revealed a high degree of Bamar chauvinism and a lack of interest in compromise.”

Marciel arrived in Hanoi in 1993 as the first American diplomat in the country as the United States and Vietnam jockeyed to establish diplomatic relations. Because of the US ban on financial transactions between the two countries, he had to hand-carry US$50,000 in cash for his expenses in Vietnam and was told he would be personally responsible if he lost the money.

Before he left for Vietnam, Marciel was told his job did not include initiating calls on officials or foreign embassies (except the UK and Canada). His only task was to “be a presence.”

When Washington formalized normalization two years later, it was Marciel’s job to find a building suitable to serve as a temporary embassy. The small nine-story building he settled on still serves as the much-overcrowded embassy today, more than 25 years later.

Marciel began his diplomatic career in the Philippines. He details coming home late one night in Manila and nearly getting caught in the giant crowd gathering near two military bases. He only learned the next morning that the people were there to support two senior generals who had turned against Marcos and would soon be involved in toppling him.


Marciel relates how during his time in the Philippines Washington was seeking a person involved in people smuggling. One day a diligent source came to Marciel and told him that he would not be able to arrest the smuggler because he was too well protected but he could kill him. The source asked what he should do. “No, don’t kill him,” Marciel told him forcefully. “He’s an alien smuggler, not a murderer or a terrorist.”

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are when Marciel shares the lessons he learned about US foreign policy and makes key recommendations of strategies policymakers should consider when confronted with future diplomatic challenges. He is not reserved about criticizing US mistakes and is a full-throated advocate for stronger US engagement with Southeast Asia as Washington’s ties with Beijing deteriorate.

One of the former diplomat’s most robust suggestions is that the United States needs to reinvigorate its economic role in the region. Although US companies remain important trade and investment partners, Southeast Asians see the United States losing ground as China’s share of global trade continues to grow.  

In addition, Washington is absent from the region’s increasing number of multilateral trade agreements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that includes China.

Marciel points out that the current administration’s trade framework does little to offer nations more market access and urges it to look for congressional support to rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled out of in 2017. 

Another of Marciel’s key messages is that Washington should view the region on its own merits rather than primarily through the lens of countering China. Southeast Asia is, after all, one of the United States’ largest trading partners and plays a critical strategic role in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea. The former ambassador calls on the US government to invest the time and resources to ensure that the region views Washington as a reliable and consistent partner.

Marciel suggests that the United States should not pull back from engaging countries that backslide on human rights and democracy like Thailand did in 2014. He argues that isolation enhances China’s relative influence in that country and says that sanctions, seemingly the tool of choice against countries that violate US ideals, are ineffective in engineering changed behavior. 


Marciel’s book was sent to the publisher around the time of Myanmar’s 2021 coup, so his most pointed recommendations about how the United States should respond to the ruling junta have been published as op-eds over the past 18 months.

Murray Hiebert is a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Follow Murray Hiebert on Twitter at @MurrayHiebert1

Scott Marciel’s “Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia” may be purchased on Amazon here.

Source: Asia Times


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