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Kamala Harris’ Southeast Asia Visit Shows Biden’s Southeast Asia Policy Still Lacks a Clear Roadmap

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Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Kamala Harris’ Southeast Asia Visit Shows Biden’s Southeast Asia Policy Still Lacks a Clear Roadmap

The expansion of U.S. cooperation with Southeast Asia was a welcome step, but the question of long-term strategy remains.

Kamala Harris’ Southeast Asia Visit Shows Biden’s Southeast Asia Policy Still Lacks a Clear Roadmap
Credit: Facebook/ Vice President Kamala Harris

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris just closed her trip to Southeast Asia, her second foreign visit since taking office. Following several high-level engagements with Southeast Asian countries in the past two months – including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s travel to Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines; as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s participation in ASEAN-related ministerial meetings – Harris’ visit is so far the most high-profile demonstration of the United States’ commitment to “stay” in the region.

During her visit to Singapore and Vietnam, the vice president proposed strengthening the United States’ partnership with Southeast Asian countries not only in security and defense, but also in the climate crisis, cybersecurity, supply chain resilience, and health security. However, these proposals are broad and vague. They do not provide a clear answer on how the United States will deepen its engagement and how it will address multiple concerns expressed by Southeast Asia.

Despite having reiterated that the region is a top priority in U.S. foreign policy, the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia policy has been generally regarded as disappointing. Some are even more pessimistic, saying that Biden’s policy toward the region largely follows in the footsteps of former President Donald Trump rather than going back to the Obama administration’s track. It is against such a background that Harris embarked on her first trip to the region. By sending its vice president to the region, the Biden administration hopes to repair and elevate its relationships with Southeast Asian states. Accordingly, in her stops in Singapore and Vietnam, besides from reiterating the United States’ continuing commitment in defense and security cooperation, Harris also put forward several new initiatives. By doing so, it is believed the U.S. has joined the diplomatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia.

Harris’ emphasis on freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia and her rebuke of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea are not surprising. In Vietnam, she referred to China’s maritime claims as “bullying” and tried to persuade Vietnamese officials to put pressure on Beijing. But in Singapore, aside from advocating for a free and open Indo-Pacific and underscoring freedom of navigation, she offered new issue areas for more cooperation. Although all these initiatives are bilateral – that is, between the U.S. and Singapore – they shed critical light on Biden’s Southeast Asia policy agenda. First, given its strategic location among Southeast Asian nations, Singapore has been always treated as a stepping stone by the great powers when they try to engage with the region. Second, as Harris said in her remarks in the joint press conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, her visit to Singapore should be seen in the context of the United States’ relationship with Southeast Asia. Moreover, Harris’ visit was about how the U.S. and Singapore can partner together to achieve the peace and stability of Southeast Asia as a whole. Therefore, the United States’ deal with Singapore have broader ramifications for the region.

First, the U.S. and Singapore will tackle the climate crisis together by launching a U.S.-Singapore Climate Partnership. Cooperation on sustainable finance is the focus, as Harris specifically mentioned during the joint press conference. Cybersecurity is another area where the U.S.-Singapore partnership is looking to expand; three bilateral agreements have been signed on cyber issues. Third, the United States and Singapore will cooperate to enhance growth, innovation, and resilient supply chains by launching a U.S.-Singapore Partnership for Growth and Innovation and a U.S.-Singapore Dialogue on Supply Chains. Supply chains in the semiconductor industry are worthy of special attention in this regard. Last but not least, both parties also promise to redouble joint efforts to advance health security with particular emphasis on disease surveillance and clinical research.

Indeed, Harris’ visit and proposed partnership in both the traditional area of maritime security and also in new areas helps reaffirm and reassure the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia. It also illuminates the Biden administration’s agenda in the region. However, how the United States will crystalize its long-term importance in the region is still a question mark.

For instance, with regard to health security, although the U.S. has sped up COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the region and has promised to provide $500,000 to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, it is not enough to strengthen the long-term partnership with the region on health governance. After all, health security extends far beyond the current pandemic. The U.S. partnership with Singapore emphasizing on future pandemic prevention may be a good start, but how this partnership on health can be extended to other Southeast Asian countries remains a question considering the different development levels of the countries in the region.

Besides, the United States also faces difficulties in addressing multiple concerns from Southeast Asian states. One of the concerns is how the U.S. will uphold its commitment to “ASEAN centrality,” especially when the country has been active in the Quad, the grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. In the panel discussion after Harris’ policy speech at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, senior members of her team explained that the Quad is about finding solutions. It is complementary to ASEAN, and ASEAN centrality is also a common interest shared by the U.S. and other Quad members. However, they did not provide more examples or clear future plans to address this concern. Thus far, the U.S. assurances on ASEAN centrality seem too weak to persuade the audience in the region that they will not ignore this principle.

Another concern is the competitions between the United States and China. Like the vice president and her colleagues reiterated, the U.S. is well aware of and respects that Southeast Asian countries do not want to choose sides. Yet during her visit, Harris, on the one hand, praised the United States’ enduring investment and benign behaviors in the region, and on the other, accused China of coercion and intimidation. This sharp contrast has only escalated the tension between the two great powers and significantly increases the worries of Southeast Asian nations.

The recent developments in Afghanistan create another serious concern for the region – whether the United States can be a reliable partner. The question of credibility has been addressed by senior U.S. officials, who underscore Washington’s longtime commitments and good record in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, historical records are not enough. More concrete actions and clear future plans need to be put forward to further convince the partners in the region.

Last but not least, the United States’ explicit focus on human rights may be another concern for the region. As Harris has made clear, “I’d like to reiterate that we will continue to lead with our values. And that means respecting human rights at home and abroad.” Consequently, she expressed that the United States is deeply worried about the repression in Myanmar. Later, she implicitly mentioned the human rights of workers and civil society in Vietnam. However, according to Human Rights Watch, many Southeast Asian countries violate human rights to different degrees and in different aspects. Between the U.S. and Southeast Asian states, a divergence in values exist. How the United States addresses the issue will have profound impacts on its relationship with the region.

The United States’ recent frequent cabinet-level meetings with its Southeast Asian counterparts, and its offer to host the 2023 APEC summit, clearly indicate the country is ready to “re-pivot” to Asia. Harris’ visit sketches the contours of the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia policy agenda. Besides consistently advocating for traditional maritime security cooperation, the U.S. also plans to strengthen its partnership with Southeast Asian countries in climate change, cybersecurity, supply chain resilience, and health security.

However, her visit does not fix either Biden’s troubled Southeast Asia policy or the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Probably, it will arouse still more concerns and questions rather than providing roadmaps and solutions. How the United States will take specific actions to engage with Southeast Asia and address multiple concerns from the region remains to be seen. Re-engagement with Southeast Asia is not an easy task.