U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s planned visit next week to Southeast Asia, following other diplomatic overtures from Washington, will help President Joe Biden compete with China for influence in a crucial yet wary region of 660 million people, experts say.
Harris will travel to regional financial center Singapore, and former U.S. war enemy Vietnam, a White House spokesperson said. Harris will speak with both governments about security, climate change, the pandemic and “joint efforts to promote a rules-based international order”, spokesperson Symone Sanders said.
Her visit would follow Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s late July trip to the same two countries plus the Philippines and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s virtual meetings August 4 with counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at an annual summit.
Events of this type have an “essential role” in “the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the U.S. Mission to ASEAN said in a statement.
U.S. officials normally use the terms “rules-based international order” and “free and open Indo-Pacific” to advocate unblocked international access to the disputed South China Sea. China claims about 90% of the waterway, overlapping the maritime economic zones of Southeast Asian states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Beijing has alarmed the other claimants by building up artificial islands for military use and passing ships through disputed tracts of the sea.
Biden's diplomacy is “meant to coordinate policies in a way, like make sure they are aligned with the U.S. agenda in the region, the free and open Indo Pacific, things like that, rules based international order, and the exploration of further areas of cooperation,” said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.
Washington is “basically coming to its senses” by understanding why it should shadow Chinese diplomacy “tit for tat,” Rabena said.
Although a world court arbitration court rejected China’s nine-dash line claim to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea in 2016, Beijing has offered its Southeast Asian maritime rivals aid for economically crucial new infrastructure and COVID-19 relief including early-stage vaccines. China maintains the largest military and economy in Asia and has expanded its navy over the past decade.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration avoided multi-country trade arrangements in Southeast Asia, brought the region shocks from the Sino-U.S. trade dispute and left “uncertainty” due to a “break from longstanding U.S. trade policy,” according to 2019 analysis of U.S.-Southeast Asia trade relations issued by the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.
However, U.S. officials still look to Southeast Asia for allies in checking Chinese expansion, part of a two-way superpower rivalry.
Biden’s administration is trying now to expand “engagement” on climate, energy and health issues, Melissa Brown, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN, told an August 9 media teleconference.
“These are issues of priority for ASEAN, and they appreciate the fact that we are approaching this as a strategic partnership working shoulder to shoulder to figure out where we want the future to take this cooperation,” Brown said.
Southeast Asian nations have long valued the U.S. role in their “security,” according to a Foreign Policy Research Institute research organization analysis released in June. Washington periodically sends warships, sells arms and helps train troops. The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc opposes overtly siding with any outside power, though, the analysis says.
Southeast Asian states will eventually want more “concrete commitments” from Washington than what Biden’s government has offered so far, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
“There will be statements about the South China Sea, but this part of the world is a very pragmatic one,” Oh said. “You have to be concrete on what you can offer, essentially.”
This week, U.S. permanent United Nations representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield traveled to Thailand where she pointed to $55 million in new U.S. assistance for humanitarian and pandemic responses in Southeast Asia.
The string of visits from Washington show that the United States will care about Southeast Asia over the long term, said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“This just demonstrates again the United States’ real commitment to the region, and I expect more of this kind of top-level diplomacy,” Nagy said.