Yesterday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris wound up her maiden trip to Southeast Asia, a two-nation tour intended to assuage the region of Washington’s long-term engagement with the region after the Biden administration’s slow-out-of-the-gate approach to the region during its initial months in office.
As with the recent visits to the region by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the purpose of Harris’ trip, which took the vice president to Singapore and Vietnam, was to demonstrate that “America is back” in what it described as “a critically important region in the world,” according to a statement from Harris’ office.
“Our partnerships in Singapore, in Southeast Asia, and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States,” Harris declared during her stop in Singapore. “The United States is a proud part of the Indo-Pacific. And this region is critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity.”
This recent flurry of visits comes after a few months when the Biden administration was perceived to have neglected Southeast Asian in favor of attention to its partners in the Quad: India, Australia, and Japan. To a certain extent, Harris’ trip succeeded in communicating that the U.S. has no intention of disengaging from Southeast Asia, despite taking place against the jarring backdrop of the messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Coming after the abrasive approach of the Trump administration, which alternated strategic neglect with barnstorming harangues about the need to stand up to communist China, the trip also showed that the U.S. is aware that it needs to advance a more positive program of American engagement with Southeast Asia, one that is tuned more closely to the region’s needs and that extends beyond defense engagement to encompass the economic realm in which China’s growing power poses perhaps the greatest challenge to U.S. hegemony.
In this vein, Harris in her Singapore speech tried to reassure Southeast Asian governments that despite its intention to remain strongly engaged in the region, the U.S. would not force countries to choose between itself and China. “Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region,” she said. This focus was reflected in the range of agreements that Harris signed in Singapore, which covered cybersecurity, climate, epidemic intelligence sharing, and economic cooperation, as well as the support she announced for Vietnam’s current COVID-19 outbreak.
While in Hanoi, Harris vowed to donate 1 million doses of Pfizer vaccine to the country, which after riding out the pandemic year of 2020 with relative aplomb, is now facing a serious COVID-19 outbreak driven by the Delta variant of the disease. Harris committed $23 million to support Hanoi’s efforts to fight the pandemic, in addition to the 6 million vaccine doses it has donated to Vietnam so far. She also launched the opening of a new regional office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Hanoi.
Maritime security also figured prominently on both stops of Harris’ tour. In Singapore, Harris said that Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea amount to “coercion” and “intimidation.” “We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” she said, adding that these actions “continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”
In Hanoi, she called on Vietnam to join the U.S. in challenging China’s “bullying” in the strategically pivotal seaway. “We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” she said in remarks at the opening of a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Yet, despite a more affirmative definition of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia, the visit was still shot through with tensions between the need for U.S. policy to reflect the needs and views of would-be Southeast Asian partners and the primary purpose for its engagement: countering China’s growing influence.
As under Trump, there remains a misalignment in perception between policymakers in Washington and their Southeast Asian counterparts. Under the prevailing bipartisan consensus in Washington, it has become routine for politicians and policymakers to frame their country’s struggle with Beijing as a showdown between democracy and authoritarianism, pitting what they view as an essentially benign power (the U.S.) against an essentially malign one (China).
For Southeast Asian nations, however, the difference between the two hegemons is generally one of degree rather than of kind. In large part, this calculation is simply pragmatic: recognizing and treating China as a fundamentally malign actor offers no obvious solutions to the challenge of navigating China’s return to great power status; indeed, it would very likely complicate it.
As Hoang Thi Ha of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute put it, Southeast Asian governments “would like to see the U.S. taking a more robust, principled response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, or its bullying behavior, but at the same time they don’t want to see any conflict at all.” And ideological castings of U.S.-China rivalry are only likely to increase the potential of conflict.
The Biden administration’s approach to Southeast Asia also evinces an incipient frustration at Southeast Asian nations’ unwillingness to do more to stand up to China, which is to say, to view the challenge posed by Beijing in the same light that it is viewed in Washington.
So far, the administration’s approach to the region has been deeper but narrower. Both Harris and Austin made stops in Singapore and Vietnam, which are also the only two Southeast Asian nations explicitly mentioned in the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance report as central to “advanc[ing] shared objectives” in the “Indo-Pacific.” (Austin also stopped in the Philippines.)
The absence from these itineraries of the two American treaty allies in the region – Thailand and the Philippines – as well as the region’s largest nation – Indonesia – is striking, even if one considers the limited diplomatic resources that can be dedicated toward Southeast Asia. Indeed, the absence of Indonesia from Austin and Harris’ itineraries was described by the Jakarta Post as a “snub.” Clearly, Vietnam and Singapore are the two Southeast Asian nations whose interests U.S. policymakers believe overlap most closely with their own.
The administration has also demonstrated a degree of uncertainty in its approach toward ASEAN, whose vacillating stance on China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea has often frustrated U.S. policymakers. As Elina Noor noted this week, while the U.S. has made repeated affirmations of the importance of ASEAN centrality, “there has not yet been a cabinet-level trip to Brunei, which is the current ASEAN chair, or to Cambodia, which succeeds Brunei as chair; or to Indonesia, which hosts the ASEAN Secretariat.”
Given the selectivity of U.S. engagement, Noor concluded, “The back-to-back visits of Harris and Austin to Singapore and Vietnam raise uncomfortable questions of a China subtext to Washington’s engagement strategy, despite the assurances of not forcing countries to choose.”
Ultimately, the trips hinted both at where U.S. interests overlap with those of Southeast Asian governments, but also areas of longstanding misalignment. Despite the shift from Trump’s unmasked Jacksonian belligerence to the more diplomatic Biden administration, it is likely that these consonances and dissonances will continue to characterize U.S. relations with Southeast Asia until the end of Biden’s term – and beyond.