The U.S. reaches out to Southeast Asia amid a credibility crisis

The United States, the self-proclaimed leader of world affairs for a fairly long period of time now, is going through a crisis of credibility with the fall of US-backed democratic government in Kabul to the Taliban forces on August 15, an incident that drew parallels from various corners of the world to the fall of Saigon in 1975 that concluded the Vietnam War. Even though both these incidents are entirely in different politico-historical backgrounds, the perceived debacle of world’s strongest military superpower remains a common factor. This raises a lot of questions of the dependability of the US among its vastly spread global network of allies and partners, particularly in Southeast Asia, the backyard of China.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris in Singapore and Vietnam

It is in the aforementioned context Kamala Harris pays her maiden visit to Singapore and Vietnam as US Vice-President, the second-most important person in the Biden administration, which comes only a week after the fall of Kabul. This is the first visit by a US Vice-President to Vietnam, which has tense relations with Beijing, owing to the latter’s actions in the South China Sea and the Mekong River. However, India, the land of her ethnicity, is saved for another day.

The Biden administration seeks to reset ties in Asia after the turbulent and unpredictable presidency of Donald Trump by reassuring Washington’s role as a stabilising force in the region, particularly considering China’s belligerent and revisionist moves that attempt to disrupt the status quo of peace. V-P Harris said in Singapore, “The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously.”

Harris aims a lot at convincing her hosts of American regional security role in Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific by addressing apprehensions on the same. Biden’s first six months were largely dedicated to recalibrating the transatlantic alliance, reassuring European allies, and to open a new channel of dialogue to discuss differences with rival China as seen in the high-level Alaska talks held in March. The limelight is now again on Asia, a region central to US security.

The preceding high-level visits in July

The last month witnessed the visits of two high-profile officials in the Biden administration to Asia. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman travelled to Tianjin, a city in north-eastern China and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin travelled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines – the three countries in Southeast Asia that are most strategically aligned to the United States and supportive of its regional presence.

While Secretary Sherman discussed ways to set terms for a responsible management of US-China relations by welcoming competition and avoiding conflict, Secretary Austin focused on reassuring the enduring US security commitment to Southeast Asia, underscoring the centrality of ASEAN-led regional architecture.

US influence in Asia meets the Chinese challenge

As China keep militarizing the South China Sea and bolster its naval fleet, the littoral states will be naturally driven closer to the United States, which remain strongly committed to the idea of freedom of the seas.

Even though the US continues to top the latest Asia Power Index rankings and remains the most powerful country in the region in terms of comprehensive relative power, it had been on the downward path when compared to previous years as China moves ahead in key measures such as economic relationships, economic capability and diplomatic influence.

The US pre-dominance in Asia owes a lot to its military capabilities and vast alliance networks. But recently, regional countries are brought closer to China in the realm of trade and economics through initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade agreement signed in November 2020, the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiated in 2013, the Digital Silk Road and mounting Chinese investments in Southeast Asia.

In fact, regional players have been trying to dodge the bullet of choosing between China and the US. As the vaccine diplomacy of the US and Quad is underway in Southeast Asia, China too is also in the scene offering its own alternative means of support. The visit of Vice President Harris covers a broad spectrum of issues ranging from defence cooperation and cyber-security to climate change and supply chain risks.

Policy steps from Obama to Trump

Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House in 2009 heralded a new era of US engagement with Asia, moving away from his predecessor George Bush’s costly decade of military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan, an approach later evolved as the US Pivot to Asia in 2011. It had security and economic dimensions to rebuild ties with regional allies, partners and countries and to re-posture its presence in the region. It also came in the backdrop of dealing with a new rising economic and technological giant and an aspiring superpower – China.

The Trump era that followed Obama saw the re-emergence of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad from the shadows in 2017, as the strategic challenge from China became more and more evident in multiple spheres of engagement. The Biden presidency is hopeful of managing the continuing competitive relationship with China in a responsible manner as articulated by Secretary Sherman in her recent visit to China last month.

As the Indo-Pacific construct dominates US foreign policy discourse on Asia and the Pacific today, Southeast Asia remains at the centre of it. The trajectory of Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea, along with the Taiwan Strait crisis, will remain as the two most important factors that could potentially determine the future of US involvement in Asia’s regional security architecture.

South China Sea – a potential conflict zone

Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan continue to claim parts of South China Sea and its islands, despite China’s opposition, particularly the Spratly and the Paracel archipelagos. Chinese patrolling in the seas are also affecting the livelihoods of fisher-folk, particularly the Filipinos, who are the most vocal in their protests. Beijing continues to exert it’s so called “historical” claim on almost the entirety of the strategic waterway and has been reclaiming land and building artificial islands from the submerged reefs and atolls. Many of them are subsequently placed with military installations.

China’s claims are based on the vague notion of ‘Nine-Dash Line’ that dates back to 1947 and it overlaps with the legitimate 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones of many of the Southeast Asian states. It has been ruled invalid and baseless in the eyes of internaltional law by an arbitration tribunal ruling in 2016. During the latest China-ASEAN virtual summit held this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea and described the United States as the “biggest trouble-maker” in the region.

Moreover, China perceives US military presence and regular passage of its warships through the South and East China Seas as an unwarranted provocation and meddling in its backyard. All these factors make the region ripe for a potential conflict in the near future. Having Southeast Asia again as a conflict zone is in no one’s interest and such a scenario can only be avoided by giving diplomacy a chance and building trust with each other.

Change of focus and new possibilities

America’s old military preoccupations are giving way to a renewed focus towards Asia’s east, which happens to be in the neighbourhood of China. The Biden administration considers its rivalry with China as “the single biggest geopolitical test” of this century. At the same time, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan opens up new possibilities to divert its attention and resources to East Asia and the Pacific which can be utilised for ensuring peace, security, and a rules-based order, rather than plunging into an unwanted conflict. ASEAN’s inability to effectively compel China towards a mutually-agreeable dispute resolution and a lack of shared interests among its individual member-states may also provide more chances for a pro-active US diplomatic outreach to the region, and I hope the visit of V-P Kamala Harris could pave the way for it.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.