As U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris gives a policy speech in Singapore today (August 24), she will no doubt deliver a landmark speech highlighting the importance of Singapore and ASEAN to the United States, and the importance of America’s regional partnerships.
She will likely talk about a “rules-based order,” anchored on Indo-Pacific principles of freedom of navigation, adherence to the rule of law, restraint from the use of force, economic prosperity, and connectivity. Like U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who visited Singapore and Vietnam during his Southeast Asia swing in July, Harris will also go to Vietnam. Harris will hit all the right notes, stressing the centrality of ASEAN and asserting that regional countries need not choose between China and the United States.
In an ideal world, this would gain Washington much mileage in the region, particularly if Harris trots out a central Biden administration line: the importance of alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. The preceding Trump administration was seen to have become too transactional toward such relationships.
Unfortunately, the optics for Washington are not looking too good at the moment, just a week after the U.S. was seen high-tailing it out of Afghanistan. For anti-American propagandists, the embarrassment could not have been a better indictment of the fragility of American commitment and credibility.
This is not to say that the U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan is wrong. The U.S. has spent 20 years, more than $1 trillion, and suffered 2,452 U.S. military deaths in its effort to rebuild the country. What began as a mission to eradicate al-Qaida turned into an effort to build a modern and democratic nation-state – one that ultimately failed. Around 70 percent of Americans support the withdrawal.
Drawing parallels between the fall of Kabul in 2021 and the fall of Saigon in 1975 are imperfect at best. In 1975, U.S. allies in Asia didn’t immediately slip into the Chinese or Soviet orbits, and the much-feared toppling of Southeast Asian dominos did not take place. Fourteen years later, the U.S. triumphed in the Cold War. Arguably, Afghanistan 2021 will give Washington a laser focus on more pressing challenges: China and Russia.
Still, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will give its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific reasons for introspection about America’s staying power. As the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman put it, Washington’s credibility has been “shredded” and American “security guarantees cannot be relied upon.”
At the most fundamental level, American policy in a perfect world should apply uniformly in the U.S. and elsewhere. At the least, U.S. commitments to basic principles should matter. But at this juncture, President Joe Biden’s support of human rights and women’s rights sound hollow. Just ask the thousands of Afghan women who now face a severely curtailed future; ditto the ordinary Afghans who had worked for the U.S. and Western militaries.
The same logic applies to the risk of terrorist havens re-emerging in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Americans went to Afghanistan to weed out al-Qaida. This was an American endeavor to protect Americans in the American homeland. Any security enjoyed by other countries was a bonus. It goes without saying that the re-emergence of such terrorist threats in Afghanistan will affect Southeast Asia. The return of the Taliban could well boost militant groups in Southeast Asia, in particular, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Despite the hand-wringing over America’s regional commitments, there is still reason to believe that Washington’s commitments to various hot-spots in the Indo-Pacific – the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula – will hold. Despite its missing the occasional ASEAN meeting, the U.S. spent the 1990s and 2000s beefing up alliances and partnerships; it “never left” the region. As Stephan Walt argues, it would be an error to conflate America’s not-so-vital interests in Afghanistan with its vital interests in Asia and Europe.
But the withdrawal from Afghanistan underscores one thing: U.S. interests change from time to time. As former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan put it last week, the U.S. has its own interests and will take care of them “in its own way.” So if regional partners in the Middle East worry about Iran “or anything else,” the U.S. message is for allies and partners to rely more on themselves and work together; the U.S. will chip in as its interests dictate. This not-so-subtle message was lost on the Afghan government, he adds.
While it is true that concerns about U.S. reliability is “an old pastime,” as The Economist puts it, the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan does not bode well for its long-standing commitments in the Indo-Pacific.
The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan adds to a list of U.S. retrenchments in the region. In 1978, Washington severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and switched it to the communist government in Beijing. In April 1975, U.S. personnel were forced to flee as North Vietnam conquered the South, just over two years after coming to a negotiated settlement with Hanoi. Earlier that month, the U.S. “abandoned Cambodia and left it to the butcher,” grieved its then-ambassador to the country.
While U.S. commitments to regional hotpots remain solid for now, the idea of American retrenchment in the face of domestic challenges is gaining ground in America. Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, Thomas Wright noted that both realists and progressives share a common understanding about retrenchment: that it would be better for the U.S. if it reduces its global military footprint and security commitments.
This is the common thread that connects the Trump and Biden administrations. Touting “America First,” Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and expressed nonchalance when the Philippines terminated its Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. Trump’s historic withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership in 2017 is still being talked about in policy circles in the region today.
Ironically, Biden has taken on what some have called “America First Lite.” Afghanistan is a case in point. The same applies to Biden’s embracing of Trump-era policies such as pandemic control measures at the Mexican and Canadian borders. The Biden doctrine is that the U.S. will take care of its own, and that there is only so much that can be done “on the other side of that gate.”
Where does this lead us? America remains primus inter pares in the Indo-Pacific – for now. But this doesn’t mean that in the future, it will not stage a negotiated withdrawal from the region with the acquiescence of China.
In 2008, Adm. Timothy Keating, then commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said a Chinese admiral offered him an agreement to carve up the region. “You keep your aircraft carriers east of Hawaii. We’ll keep ours west. You share your information with us; we’ll share our information with you. We’ll save you the time and effort of coming all the way to the Western Pacific,” the Chinese admiral told him.
The Chinese admiral was jesting. But such an agreement is not hard to figure out. The U.S. could ask China to ensure the safety of commercial navigation and permit U.S. access to its regional bases. China would reciprocate by not building on its island bases in the South China Sea.
No one knows when, or even whether, the U.S. would withdraw from the region. But national interests and priorities can change. Afghanistan provides another data point for introspection.