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Vice President Harris ends lackluster first visit to Southeast Asia

The administration is going to have to do a lot more than to troll China to show it's diplomatically engaged with the region.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Singapore and Vietnam this week reflected the Biden administration’s desire to shift its focus to Southeast and East Asia and to build on Defense Secretary Austin’s recent visit to those same countries. 

Taking place at the same time as the evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, the visit has received relatively little coverage at home, but it is another signal that the administration intends to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from entanglements in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is also an attempt to make up for the administration’s early missteps that reinforced the impression in the region that the U.S. still wasn’t paying much attention to Southeast Asia. 

Washington will need to make a sustained effort at greater diplomatic engagement if it wants to convince the governments in the region that the Biden administration is serious when it says that “America is back.” That will require building up stronger bilateral relationships with regional states without trying to shoehorn them into a larger anti-China agenda. It will also require eliminating the pious invocations of the “rules-based order” that immediately exposes the U.S. to charges of bad faith and hypocrisy. Harris’ emphasis on upholding the “rules-based order” in her Singapore and Vietnam remarks shows how wedded the Biden administration still is to this rhetoric. 

The United States has neglected Southeast Asia for decades, and none of the countries in the region appears interested in picking sides in a great power rivalry. In case there was any doubt about this, the Vietnamese government made its hedging impossible to miss. Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh held an impromptu meeting with the Chinese ambassador while Harris’ arrival was delayed by reports of an “anomalous health incident” in Hanoi, and at the meeting he stressed that Vietnam would not be joining any anti-China alliance. In keeping with their traditional foreign policy, the government stated, “Vietnam does not align itself with one country against another.”

That is why Harris’ proposal that the U.S. and Vietnam should upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership isn’t going to be warmly received in Hanoi. While Vietnam has plenty of its own reasons to be wary of China, it is not going to commit itself to closer alignment with the U.S., especially when it is the country that will bear the brunt of any Chinese response. 

Le Dang Doanh, a former economic adviser to several Vietnamese leaders, toldThe South China Morning Post that the current Vietnamese leadership would not take this risk: “As far as I know, it will not be possible for the two countries to upgrade their relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership because it is understandable that Vietnam lives next to China, so any action of Vietnam must also take into account the reaction of China.”

Vietnam is prepared to work with the United States on shared security interests to a degree, but it does not wish to be locked into the position of being a front-line state in opposition to China. To do that would go against decades of Vietnamese foreign policy practice and invite unwanted retaliation from Beijing. The Biden administration is asking for something that the Vietnamese government is simply not prepared to give.

The vice president’s rhetorical attacks on China were predictable, but it is not clear that they were at all productive. It is all very well to denounce China for its “bullying” tactics in the South China Sea, but Wasington really should not be taking sides in these territorial disputes. For their part, the Chinese government simply threw the accusations of bullying and coercion back in Harris’s face. It is difficult for the administration to sell Southeast Asian governments on the idea that they aren’t directing efforts in the region against any one country when almost all of their criticism is directed only at China. This is another reason why claiming that the U.S. is merely upholding the “rules-based order” is so hard for others to take seriously.

The vice president’s visit yielded some modest successes. Harris announced the delivery of an additional one million shots of the Pfizer vaccine to Vietnam, and U.S. vaccine diplomacy there has helped to earn America some much-needed goodwill. Pham Quang Minh, a Vietnamese foreign policy expert, commented, “The US vice-president’s visit at this time is seen by Vietnam as demonstrating the saying ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed, a friend in times of trouble is a true friend.’” Harris also presided over the opening of a regional office for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Hanoi. This is the sort of constructive international cooperation that serves to strengthen U.S. ties with other countries while also lending important assistance to vulnerable people in the middle of the pandemic. These are the kinds of initiatives that the U.S. should be prioritizing in its relations with Southeast Asian countries. 

One area where the Biden administration needs to be doing more is in filling empty diplomatic posts there, several of which were left vacant during Trump’s presidency as well. Sen. Ted Cruz’s vindictive blockade on State Department nominees has been gumming up the confirmation process for months and preventing dozens of nominees from being considered, but that doesn’t explain why Biden has not even announced nominations. These empty posts include the Philippines and Thailand, both of which are treaty allies. Biden didn’t announce his nominee for ambassador to Singapore until just a few weeks ago, and that post has not had a confirmed ambassador for the last four years. 

Meanwhile, the ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Kim, was named as North Korea envoy earlier this year, and he is expected to split his time between Jakarta and the other job. There is still no confirmed U.S. envoy to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which underscores the overall lack of engagement with the organization and the region. The U.S. can conduct diplomacy without confirmed ambassadors in every capital, but their absence reflects a lack of interest in the affairs of the region that is bound to be noticed.

So far, this is not the record of an administration that is making Southeast Asia a top priority. There is time to change that, but the Biden administration has not made the best first impression over the last seven months. For an administration that likes to tout the importance of diplomacy in its rhetoric, they have not done nearly enough to prove that they are interested in engaging the region. The visits from Austin and Harris represent the start of making up for earlier neglect, but the U.S. will have to make a much more concerted effort if it is going to improve its position in Southeast Asia.

Vice President Kamala Harris. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
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