Moving the needle on tech diplomacy in Southeast Asia

tech diplomacy Southeast Asia
Image by Dzmitry Dzemidovich | Bigstockphoto

The US is rapidly increasing its presence in the region, even as China has already made huge strides. The question is, how are Southeast Asian countries factored in the equation?

As US-China competition continues to heat up, US President Joe Biden and his advisors hope to regain trust in a region that the US has previously mostly ceded to China.

In what seems to be steps toward tech diplomacy, Biden administration officials have made multiple trips to Southeast Asia in the last year.

NPR reports that in fact, Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded 2021 with his first trip to the region, travelling to Indonesia and Malaysia in January, where he declared that “much of the world’s future will be written in the Indo-Pacific.”

According to an analysis by the Observer Research Foundation, Washington is attempting to convey the idea that America’s Indo-Pacific strategy isn’t merely directed at deterring Chinese aggressiveness and expansion.

The goal, from Washington’s perspective, was to portray the United States as a trustworthy co-partner in addressing the challenges that the Indo-Pacific region faces. But does Southeast Asia actually need the US?

The urgency for tech diplomacy

For the longest time, the US has lacked a framework for American technology diplomacy, to the detriment of its global authority in laying down future technological standards.

Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, an American entrepreneur, remarked that diplomacy is important for many reasons, including the possibility that the US semiconductor industry may suffer a fate similar to that of the US telecommunications sector if no major action is taken.

Curtis Chin, Milken Institute of Asia fellow and former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, suggests in an interview with CNN Philippines suggests some first steps for the US

According to him, the Biden administration requires new ambassadors in Southeast Asian nations because they will be the driving force behind American foreign policy in the region.

“Southeast Asia is such an important region, but when we look at the US-China rivalry…China has upped its game,” he said.

How ASEAN is responding

As Biden and his team revisit their relations with Southeast Asian countries and strengthen their own technology and research locally, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is both hopeful and worried.

This rivalry between the world’s biggest superpowers also short-changes the region’s capacity to forge its own destiny, according to Parag Khanna, founder and managing partner of FutureMap.

Furthermore, Washington amping up rivalry with Beijing in technology, investment, infrastructure, and security areas can make it difficult for the region’s neutral stance that embodies cultural values of non-interference and non-confrontation.

But the region may very well know how to use these values to its advantage.

“Southeast Asian nations are fully aware of all of this jostling at the diplomatic and commercial levels. This mere fact has encouraged them to incrementally push forward with their own regional agenda,” Khanna added.

This is evident in the region’s growing tech ecosystem, which includes the rise of Southeast Asian unicorns like SEA Group, Grab, Tokopedia, and VNG Corporation. And while these companies and their countries of origin avoid taking sides in the US-China rivalry, they are leveraging their growth for increased support from investors, wherever they may be located.

Khanna also points to VNG, which is an example of a firm that is too entrenched in its home market to have to give ground or grovel before even the world’s largest technology firms or global superpowers.

ASEAN: the next leader?

“The region is clearly not a bloc. Rather, it is a sponge, absorbing foreign technology and practices to increase its own weight. The winner of the US-China confrontation may well be Southeast Asia,” Khanna concluded.

In other words, the region could be poised to gain from increased rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

What’s more, as a nonpartisan actor in the US-China competition for influence in Asia, Southeast Asia can use its neutrality to garner support from both superpowers.

The way the US or China executes tech diplomacy will determine how each benefits from the emergence of what could be their next competitor in the tech race.

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