Washington Needs to Do More Than Just Show Up in Southeast Asia
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After years of half-hearted engagement in Southeast Asia, the U.S. is back. At least that’s the line the Biden administration is attempting to run.
The question is, after the way the U.S. left Afghanistan and treated its key partners, will regional leaders buy it?
Many will be looking at Washington with even more skepticism and distrust, given the dangerous situation unfolding at Kabul airport and the potential for a resurgence in terrorism emanating from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. All in the wake of the tumultuous Trump presidency. The visit of Vice President Kamala Harris to Southeast Asia this week will provide an indication of just how much diplomatic capital Joe Biden has lost over Afghanistan, with the inevitable comparisons to the American withdrawal from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975.
Harris’s visit follows those of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who attempted to present a more humble U.S. to the region — one that could admit to its policy missteps and domestic problems, including attacks on Asian-Americans — as a way of rebuilding trust across Southeast Asia.
Washington needs the region to get behind its push to check China’s moves, and has even offered up a plan for a digital trade pact covering Indo-Pacific economies. But some nations have been reluctant to sign up to the idea — held back by a combination of a lack of trust in the U.S. and fear of how Beijing would respond. China’s largest corporations, like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., have led a wave of investment into Southeast Asia — which has more than half a billion people rapidly migrating online — so there is not much upside to an agreement that cuts out the mainland.
The region should be important to Washington. It has two longtime U.S. allies — the Philippines and Thailand — and key partners, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. But years of neglect has seen economic ties shift toward Beijing, even as these nations have serious concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea and the potential debt trap of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road project.
Harris was careful to stress the U.S. commitment to the region. She focused on the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific — diplomat-speak for dealing with Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea — as well as expanding cooperation on security, the global economy and pandemic responses. Her mantra was “reaffirm, reinforce and renew” when she spoke in Singapore Monday after meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
But there was no sidestepping Afghanistan and how Southeast Asia views the U.S.’s unseemly departure and its impact on the credibility of Washington’s foreign policy promises. As Lee said, perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region will now be influenced by what it does going forward, how it repositions itself and how it continues the fight against terrorism. He too couched the visit as a sign of the U.S. “renewing ties.”
The recent high-profile trips to the region indicate Washington recognizes it has some work to do. Austin’s visit was particularly well-received and resulted in the restoration of a key military deal between the Philippines and the U.S., injecting some certainty into their defense relations and sending a clear message to Beijing about its continued military presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
And as Bec Strating, the executive director of La Trobe Asia and a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Melbourne-based La Trobe University noted, the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul may not be viewed entirely negatively for Southeast Asia. While it raises credibility issues for Washington, the move might also be depicted as a pivoting away from extended deployments in Afghanistan and the Middle East toward the Indo-Pacific. In other words, Strating said, it could be seen as an opportunity for the U.S. to devote more time and diplomatic heft to the geopolitical challenges presented by China.
A big part of diplomacy is just showing up, former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, Frank Lavin, told Bloomberg Television Monday. But he noted that visits and collegiality only get you so far — it was now up to the U.S. to develop significant regional initiatives to allow Southeast Asian countries to warm to Washington that do not involve a pact that is seen as hostile to China. Lavin is now chairman and chief executive officer of Export Now, which helps companies break into China’s e-commerce market.
The U.S.’s vaccine diplomacy has given it a good start in re-engaging with the region. It has so far has donated more than 23 million vaccine doses and $158 million in assistance to Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states to combat Covid-19, along with 500 million shots for distribution by the World Health Organization’s Covax program that provides inoculations to developing countries.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attendance at annual meetings of the 10 Asean foreign ministers and other nations and separate gatherings of the Lower Mekong sub-region countries Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand also helped show Washington was serious about its intentions. Harris’s trip contributes to that effort as well. In the past few years the U.S. has often not attended these regional meetings or sent junior diplomats.
Now the U.S. needs to come up with something concrete that nations can sign up to — a pact or an initiative that is not obviously anti-China. That’s where the real work will begin.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia Government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.
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