It’s a little late, but the Biden administration has finally launched its Southeast Asian diplomatic offensive.
The delays aren’t all the new administration’s fault: Engagement has been stymied by technical glitches and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the gaping hole between rhetoric that prioritized the region and a failure to follow through jeopardized its strategic ambitions. The Biden team has shifted into high gear, dispatching officials and announcing policies to reinforce U.S. ties with the region and promote vital cooperation on shared concerns.
The embrace of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic framework highlights the importance of Southeast Asia: It’s the geographic nexus of the Indian and Pacific oceans. All U.S. governments talk about the region’s importance and tout their eagerness to engage, but the particularities of Southeast Asian diplomacy, especially the unwieldy creature that is ASEAN, are frustrating and other issues invariably get in the way. Regional governments are quick to notice — and point out — the discrepancies.
Southeast Asian governments were, for the most part, happy to see the end of the Trump presidency. The former president had little time or energy for the rituals that define the region’s foreign policy. His failure to show up for their meetings was a slap in the face — with the low-level representatives he sent in his place compounding the insult — and his failure to appoint an ASEAN ambassador throughout his four years in the White House was an unmistakable show of indifference.
They were troubled by Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and his insistence on rebalancing trade accounts in favor of the United States and at their expense. While the region’s realists were pleased by his administration’s readiness to call out China as a revisionist power, they were alarmed by the demand that they pick sides in that great power confrontation and concerned that his disdain for alliances and transactionalism meant that the U.S. could no longer be counted on to provide public goods, especially security.
For Devi Anwar Fortuna, one of the region’s leading voices on foreign policy, this “contributed to a lack of confidence in the United States as a reliable strategic partner among Southeast Asian countries.”
Biden’s election was greeted with relief. In the 2020 edition of “The State of Southeast Asia,” the authoritative annual survey of elite opinion by the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute, a Singapore think tank, 77% of respondents believed that U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia declined under Trump from the Obama years. A year later, more than two-thirds, or 68.6%, expected U.S. engagement to pick up under Biden, and more than half, or 55.4%,deemed the U.S. a reliable strategic partner and provider of regional security.
Those hopes were frustrated in the first six months of the Biden term. Engagement with ASEAN was hampered by the coup in Myanmar, which forced the U.S. to step back as it debated how to do diplomacy with the group without seeming to approve of the military junta. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to hold a virtual meeting with ASEAN counterparts in May, but it was canceled because of technical problems. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was scheduled to attend the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, always a high-profile event with lots of side meetings, but the conference was called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden has not spoken to a single Southeast Asian head of state, nor has he appointed ambassadors to many regional capitals or ASEAN itself. That lack of representation is always taken as a slight, but it assumes even more importance when those governments read about Biden’s “Build Back Better” policy and need an authoritative U.S. voice to explain why it will not come at their expense.
The administration has recognized that it needs to pick up its game. In recent weeks, some ambassadorial appointments have been made and senior officials are visiting the region. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June; Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines last week; Blinken is holding five consecutive days of virtual meetings with Southeast Asian counterparts this week; and Vice President Kamala Harris announced her own visit to Singapore and Vietnam.
Austin’s trip was especially valuable. He reiterated U.S. support for ASEAN centrality, the idea that the regional forum is the preferred venue for engagement, which isn’t necessarily true but is a piety that all outside powers must mouth. He called the region his department’s “top strategic priority” and repeated U.S. defense commitments.
The day after Austin met Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, the Philippine government announced that it would not abrogate the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, which is the legal foundation of the alliance. It isn’t clear what prompted Duterte, who has delighted in upending the alliance and promoting relations with China, to reverse course, but it could be that he senses a shift in the balance of power between Beijing and Washington.
Austin emphasized that “We know no one can go it alone.” He talked about helping regional powers beef up their capacity to protect their own sovereignty but insisted that the U.S. would not ask countries in Southeast Asia to choose between the U.S. and China.
COVID-19 diplomacy has become a pillar of U.S. engagement. Donating vaccines is one of the most effective ways to make a tangible difference in the lives of billions of people around the world — and challenge China as it aggressively promotes its own COVID-19 diplomacy. Washington has sent 23 million doses to Southeast Asian countries, an impressive number — except for the fact that the region is home to more than 600 million people. The U.S. pledged to provide 1 billion doses through the “Quad” — which includes Japan, Australia and India — but the COVID-19 surge in India prompted Delhi, which was manufacturing the doses, to ban all vaccine exports.
The Quad’s failure to deliver underscores a tactical mistake to push that forum over ASEAN. Most observers expected priorities to be reversed, but the issues that hindered progress with ASEAN motivated the U.S. to pursue the other option, especially when the Quad was viewed as a more efficient and quick-moving forum. The problems in Delhi, of which the COVID-19 crisis is only the most obvious, should remind the U.S. that for all its frustrations, ASEAN may still be the better bet.
Two issues are key to U.S. progress with Southeast Asia. The first is economic engagement. Regional governments want the U.S. to balance their growing economic reliance on China, in both trade and investment. China’s Belt and Road Initiative will enhance Chinese economic influence in the region, and the U.S. has been slow to develop a counterbalance.
Washington, in partnership with Tokyo and Canberra, launched the Blue Dot Network in 2019 to spur infrastructure investment, but it remains vague and underfunded. The G7 backed the initiative at its June summit, but skepticism remains high. And, as noted, regional governments know that Biden’s priority is to build back better at home; it isn’t clear what monies will be available for regional investment.
The second problem is the Biden administration’s focus on democracy and values, along with its readiness to draw a sharp line between liberal and illiberal governments. Southeast Asian governments are uneasy with any emphasis on democracy and human rights — not only because those issues could become the thin wedge of an effort to forge a coalition against China, but because they fear that their own records may be criticized as well.
In some ways, Biden has it easy. He only has to avoid Trump’s most egregious mistakes — like publicly dissing ASEAN — to score points. Reports indicate that Biden will be attending the annual regional get-togethers that will be held later this year. He can reverse the more questionable moves by the Trump administration. For example, ending the Section 301 investigation into alleged currency manipulation by Vietnam launched by his predecessor was a smart move and made Austin’s Hanoi meetings much more pleasant.
Biden should also work more closely with Japan in the region. Japan has deep political and economic relationships with regional elites and the ISEAS surveys consistently show Japan is the most trusted outside power. Washington is doing that but it can rely more on Tokyo to promote its interests in Southeast Asia. That is the sort of partnership that befits the alliance in an era of wide-ranging competition and will help compensate for Biden’s slow start in Southeast Asia.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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