90 percent of the success comes from just showing up – or so it is said about U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia. It isn’t clear who first said that. The adage has been ascribed by some to Derek Mitchell, the former ambassador to Myanmar, and by others to Hillary Clinton. During a House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in 2017, the Congressman Ted Yoho put it slightly differently: “on the diplomatic front in Southeast Asia, 80 percent of success is showing up.” Whether it’s 80 percent or 90 percent, and despite the fact that this line was borrowed from the comedian Woody Allen, who meant it in jest, it has now stuck. But how many times has this rubbish been repeated by serious thinking people for it now to become something close to conventional wisdom? Notice, it is not just patronizing but solipsistic.
It posits, rather explicitly, that Southeast Asian leaders ought to think themselves lucky that they are visited by a bigwig from Washington. And, implicitly, it presumes the best form of diplomacy is done by the same bigwigs, who arrive in a Southeast Asian capital for a day or two, ideally read the briefs prepared for them, and hopefully charm their host dignitary with promises of security commitments and economic investments.
The problems are manifest. For starters, the glitz of a visiting Washington grandee is fading. We aren’t in pre-2011 times (before the “pivot”) when the region was seen as something of a backwater for U.S. power and, especially under the George W. Bush administration, when it received almost no visits by senior American policymakers. Today, the Southeast Asian people themselves (and especially their leaders) are far more interested in what the visiting American dignitary has to say, rather than be simply amazed by their mere presence on the same stage. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s latest visit to Indonesia in early December was noteworthy only for his phrasing, which appeared to suggest that the U.S. will treat Southeast Asian states as they are, not by where they line up on the spectrum of U.S.-China influence. Yet, his speech in Jakarta was rubbished by some analysts for containing no new promise or guarantee.
The other problem is, “who” is showing up? Not incorrectly, Derek Grossman of RAND, in his recent “end of year report” for the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, listed the senior officials who showed up last year: “Vice President Kamala Harris (Singapore and Vietnam), Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam), Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand), newly-minted Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Indonesia and Malaysia).”
This could be seen as positive, especially compared to the latter years of the Trump administration when Southeast Asia saw few visits by senior officials. The nadir came at the 2019 ASEAN Summit when the Trump administration sent the lowly National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, a snub that led several Southeast Asian leaders to boycott the adjoining U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
Even then, however, visits by State and Defense Departments grandees in 2021 haven’t made up for Biden having not bothered to pick up a phone to any Southeast Asian leader. “Southeast Asian interlocutors are in the dark as to why they cannot even secure a phone call,” Grossman wrote in his aforementioned article. Compare that with Trump’s first year, when even before his inauguration he had spoken to Vietnam’s then prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and then to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He also met with Phuc and the Thai prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, that year. COVID-19 may be an excuse for Biden not meeting in-person with a Southeast Asian leader, but that doesn’t explain why he hasn’t even picked up the phone. Perhaps we’ll see some progress this year, although things have gone quiet on a special U.S.-ASEAN summit that Biden proposed in November and was supposed to be held this month.
But the “just showing up” theory assumes diplomacy is best performed by the most senior of officials, not those whose actual job is diplomacy: the ambassadors. According to the most recent update of the American Foreign Service Association, there is currently no U.S. ambassador in the Philippines, Thailand, or Timor-Leste. (Thailand and the Philippines are America’s two treaty allies in the region.) Ambassadorial appointees to Vietnam (Marc Knapper), Singapore (Jonathan Eric Kaplan) and Brunei (Caryn McClelland) were only confirmed in December or November. On top of that, there is still no ambassador to the ASEAN bloc.
If the Biden administration really is committed to not making every issue about China, as interlocutors have said, it would do well to quickly insert a new ambassador to ASEAN, a role that would have to overlook the domestic politics of each of the 10 members and focus only on their collective needs. And the China issue would be diluted further if the ASEAN ambassador, whoever that may be, was afforded actual influence.
Currently, the longest serving U.S. ambassadors in the region are W. Patrick Murphy (in Cambodia since mid-2019) and Peter M. Haymond (in Laos since late 2019). This cannot be lost on the region’s larger, and arguably more globally important, countries. Sung Kim has only been in Indonesia since 2020. Much of this can be put down to the Trump administration, which was pathologically slow at appointing ambassadors. More blame can be lumped on Republicans in the Senate last year. Senator Ted Cruz held up ambassadorial appointments for much of 2021 in order to pressure a debate on Nordstream 2, a Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline.
If one wants some positivity, Marc Knapper, the incoming ambassador to Vietnam, appears a good choice. And one imagines he will work well with Dan Kritenbrink, now the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific, formerly an ambassador to Vietnam.
A previous version of this piece implied that the U.S. ambassador to Singapore had not arrived to take up his post. Ambassador Kaplan arrived in Singapore in December 2021.