Pete Marovich/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Pete Marovich/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s swing through Southeast Asia last week was notable not for the headlines and handshake photos he generated but the ones generated by the Chinese.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was hosting the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Beijing during the Secretary’s visit. Hagel’s visit also competed for regional attention with news of the China–ASEAN Expo in Nanning, China, this week.

The event in Nanning is hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and involves several ASEAN heads of government.

There are a couple ways to look at this. One is that there is, indeed, a great power game going on in Asia between the U.S. and China. American cabinet visits are one of the PR tools the Obama Administration is using in this struggle. The timing and news coverage of the competing efforts create that impression.

But if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What if the states of Southeast Asia—the object of our entreaties (and China’s, too, for that matter)—are not playing the game? What if they’re playing their own game? The member countries of ASEAN—Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—want to maintain autonomy of action against both the U.S. and China. That’s why they have banded together. They want to reach out to all comers. They hedge against China and against the U.S. by reaching out to both and reaping the benefits of both relationships.

The other explanation, and the one the Obama Administration is most comfortable with, is that there’s no game. The Administration bends over backwards to reassure the Chinese of its cooperative intentions. In this telling, we’re just building our reservoirs of “soft power.”

The problem with soft power, as scholar Jakub Grygiel has pointed out, is that “it is not power at all. It is an expression of how others want us to be, and we are left hoping that their wishes somehow are congruent with ours. To exercise ‘soft power’ is really to act in ways that are satisfactory to others.”

Either way, the one thing the Administration is most certainly doing is empowering ASEAN. That being the case, it should start asking for more from its members. A good start is the negotiation with our allies in the Philippines over increased rotational presence of the U.S. military. The access the Singaporeans provide American forces is also very positive.

Vietnam is another good example. Like the Philippines, it is on the front lines of trouble with China. Diplomatic leaders there like the demonstration effect of American power vis-à-vis the Chinese. If they want more than that—weapons sales and other assistance—they’ll have to make up their minds to become closer to the U.S.

The American interest in Southeast Asia is in countering Chinese threats to peace, security, and prosperity in the Western Pacific. We should be in the business of getting partners on board with this effort, not helping them fulfill their own strategic aims.