After a relatively slow start, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has embarked on a diplomatic offensive across Southeast Asia, the new theater of great power competition.
Within a matter of weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as well as Vice President Kamala Harris visited key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, specifically Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Against the backdrop of the withdrawal debacle in Afghanistan, the incidental timing of the visits also helped soothe lingering anxieties over American commitment to the region. By and large, the Biden administration seems determined to rally not only like-minded Indo-Pacific powers such as Japan, India and Australia, but also front-line ASEAN states, which share similar anxieties over a resurgent China.
From successfully restoring the all-crucial visiting forces agreement with the Philippines to its burgeoning “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia, Washington has been sending all the right signals to its regional allies and partners. Nevertheless, there is still much to be desired in America’s regional strategy.
The Biden administration has yet to spell out concrete trade and investment initiatives as well as deepen avenues for deeper defense cooperation with Southeast Asian allies and strategic partners. After all, China is in a strong position to leverage its geographic proximity and cultural affinity, as well as expanding its economic footprint to coax and cajole weak links within the ASEAN.
When Biden came to power, there was tremendous amount of optimism over the future of U.S.-ASEAN relations. Key members of the new U.S. administration, including the newly elected president, had played a vital role in ushering an unprecedented era of diplomatic engagement between Washington and Southeast Asian countries under former President Barack Obama.
In its latest annual survey conducted by the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, more than 6 out of 10 respondents, composed of Southeast Asian policymakers and thought leaders, chose the U.S. over China if they were being forced to pick sides.
In an unmistakable vote of confidence in the incoming Biden administration, there was a double-digit increase (from 52.7% in 2020 to 63.1% in 2021) in the percentage of respondents welcoming greater American engagement with the region. In contrast, regional anxieties over an increasingly assertive China reached new levels in Vietnam (97.7%), the Philippines (95.0%), Thailand (92.2%) and Singapore (87.1%).
In its opening months, however, the Biden administration seemed too busy courting major Indo-Pacific powers as well as trans-Atlantic allies, which fretted over the unilateral posturing of the previous Donald Trump administration. Biden and his top deputies — namely Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense LIoyd Austin — seemed too busy shuttling among major Asian and European capitals.
To Southeast Asia’s dismay, the new U.S. administration seemed too busy consolidating the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad,” at the expense of so-called ASEAN centrality. A technical glitch, which torpedoed a hastily organized online meeting between Blinken and Southeast Asian diplomats in late May, left many ASEAN members feeling jilted and ignored.
The past two months, however, have seen a dramatic upsurge in the Biden administration’s diplomatic offensive across Southeast Asia. Not long after Blinken’s cordial and fruitful summit with his ASEAN counterparts in mid-July, Biden dispatched two Cabinet-level members to the region.
First came Austin’s broadly successful charm offensive, starting with a highly anticipated speech at the Fullerton Forum in Singapore, where the U.S. defense chief laid out a broadly constructive, self-reflective and inclusive vision of a rules-based order in Asia.
Only days later, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was seemingly so heartened by Austin’s humble demeanor in Manila that he decided to restore the visiting forces agreement, which facilitates large-scale American military presence in the Southeast Asian nation.
Both Austin and, weeks later, Harris also doubled down on Washington’s vaccine diplomacy as a new wave of COVID-19 infections has gripped key ASEAN countries in recent months. According to the data released by the White House, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia (8 million doses), the Philippines (6 million doses) and, now, Vietnam (6 million) are among the biggest recipients of U.S. COVID-19 vaccine donations in the world.
Even the Beijing-friendly Duterte has been uncharacteristically grateful to Washington, declaring “I’d like to thank president of the United States, Biden, the government and the people of America for not forgetting us. Do not forget us, because we share the same outlook on geopolitics, especially in Southeast Asia.” In short, Biden’s top officials went beyond just “showing up,” which is often seen as at least 50% of diplomacy in places such as Asia.
The missing elements
During her recently concluded visit to the region, Harris openly called out China’s “bullying and excessive maritime claims.” The vice president also reassured regional partners that Washington stands with its allies and partners in the face of such threats.
Acknowledging ASEAN’s states’ instinctive neutrality vis-a-vis superpower rivalries, she also made it clear that the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is geared toward preserving a stable and free regional order than aimed against any specific power, namely China.
And by signaling America’s openness to host the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Harris openly rejected the Trump administration’s protectionist posturing in previous years. But while the Biden administration seems to have developed a relatively coherent blueprint for its regional strategy, it’s so far more sizzle than steak.
To begin with, no major announcement has been forthcoming on the long-rumored “digital trade” initiative with trans-Pacific allies and key economic partners. Nor is there any significant move toward resuscitating a new and expanded version of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which was nixed by former President Donald Trump.
The Biden administration will also have to consolidate a plethora of pre-existing and proposed infrastructure development initiatives — from the Blue Dot Network and Build Back Better World projects — in order to provide a real counterweight to China’s Belt and Road initiative in places such as Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, despite all the talk of “integrated deterrence,” the Pentagon is yet to finalize any major defense deals and arms exports to either traditional treaty allies such as the Philippines or new strategic partners such as Vietnam, both of which have been at the forefront of maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea.
Finally, it’s also important for the Biden administration to widen the geographic scope of its strategic engagement within the ASEAN beyond like-minded players such as Singapore and Vietnam. Maintaining robust ties with traditional allies such as Thailand and ramping up defense cooperation with Indonesia, the region’s de facto leader, is crucial to the future of Washington’s regional policy.
The Biden administration’s decision to send multiple top-level officials to Singapore and Vietnam successively was not well received in ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, a member of the Group of 20 nations and the largest economy in Southeast Asia.
In a strongly worded editorial this month, The Jakarta Post lamented “two successive snubs by Washington’s top officials” as “truly an embarrassment for Indonesia, unless Biden has something bigger on his mind, which is almost impossible.”
Looking forward, the Biden administration will have to double-down on its initial diplomatic offensive, which has only raised expectations of a more robust and inclusive strategy in Asia. Otherwise, the U.S. risks wasting its hard-earned strategic capital and disappointing ASEAN anew to the benefit of a resurgent China.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”