WASHINGTON DC: On May 25, Southeast Asian foreign ministers sat down at their computers, anticipating their first formal meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But due to a wobbly video connection, it never appeared. US officials have suggested that Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, replace. Southeast Asians balked. They wanted to meet their equal, not his number two.
Washington would rather see this episode as a mistake among other successes, but the truth is, Biden has not kept his promises for Southeast Asia. He has yet to set an agenda for the region other than trying to bring them alongside the United States in the ongoing competition between the United States and China.
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If you are from Southeast Asia, this is the wrong message because the United States’ China-focused engagement can do little to advance its national priorities. And because no country in the region wants to alienate China.
Biden nevertheless has an array of options to improve relations between the United States and Southeast Asia. The question is whether it will act on them.
Before Biden took office, I wrote that in order to bring the region back into the US fold, he had to engage Southeast Asians in backing off Trump’s creation of rival blocs between the US and China (again once, no country in the region wants to choose between them), demonstrating American commitment to the region and offering them tangible benefits.
All of this remains true, but its progress on these fronts is decidedly mixed.
FRAME IT AS A CHOICE AGAINST CHINA?
First, in terms of framing and rival blocs, Biden delves into the “democracy versus autocracy” narrative, positioning the United States with the first and China with the second. This is not going well in the countries of Southeast Asia – many of which are not democracies or interested in pushing back against China.
Blinken, however, has chosen the path most favorable to Southeast Asians, saying Washington will not force countries to choose between the United States and China. This should be the continuing message.
Second, this is a region where running is half the battle won; however, until June, the Biden administration was missing. In fact, Biden’s engagement with Southeast Asian leaders during his first three months in office mirrored Trump’s (not a high bar to begin with).
After Blinken’s snafu, Biden cleverly sent Sherman to Southeast Asia, showing him around Indonesia (including the ASEAN secretariat), Cambodia, and Thailand. Equally positive was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s virtual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts on June 15.
But these visits and meetings have yet to combat the growing sense in the region that this is a low priority for Biden – that Quad partners from the United States, Japan, India and Australia are more important, as are parts of the Middle East (namely Israel and Iran).
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Greater commitment is needed, as Biden seems to acknowledge: he signaled his commitment to attend the 2021 ASEAN summit in Brunei in October. But Biden has not appointed ambassadors to ASEAN, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, positions that have remained empty for much of the Trump administration.
Leaving them empty will further signal American disinterest, to Washington’s great disadvantage.
CONCRETE ACTION IS LACKING
Traditionally, the greatest strength of the United States has been in providing American power to ensure peace and prosperity in Asia. But under Biden, when security concerns arose – such as when Chinese ships began pressuring the Philippines in the South China Sea in March – Washington’s response was underestimated, apparently including only public statements. .
It affected Manila and others in the region. Likewise, Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released in March, did not mention the Philippines or Thailand, both of which are allies of the US treaties.
It didn’t help that the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan left for the Middle East in May. In mid-June, however, the Navy wisely returned the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to the region – in the South China Sea, for the first time this year.
Most important for Biden, however, is to deliver economic benefits, as China is doing, notably with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The G7 and White House recently announced a global infrastructure initiative to compete with China’s BRI.
This will build on the Blue Dot Network that the United States, Japan and Australia launched in 2019, but details of the initiative remain vague. The Blue Dot network itself also remains unproven and barely implemented.
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If the intention is good, concrete action is what matters in Southeast Asia. Between 2008 and 2016, China and Japan distributed more than $ 40 billion and $ 30 billion in infrastructure funding to the region, respectively. The United States, meanwhile, provided only about $ 1 billion.
To advance the relationship between the United States and Southeast Asia and consolidate American power in the region, Biden must convince Southeast Asians in simple and practical terms why American regional leadership benefits them.
Another benefit is expected to be COVID-19 vaccines. The Quad was supposed to fund Indian vaccine production for Southeast Asia, but when India’s COVID-19 crisis worsened, the country demanded all the doses it will produce in 2021.
COVAX, the global initiative that the United States supports, provided the region with a limited number of vaccines, but that effort also relied on Indian production.
Yet when Biden announced in early June his intention to share 25 million doses of the vaccine with the world, he set aside just 7 million for South and Southeast Asia – a tiny amount for two regions including 2.5 billion people.
His subsequent announcement that the United States would share 500 million doses with low-income countries is a good sign, but those doses won’t be delivered until 2022. And it’s not yet clear how many of them will go to South Asia. South East.
None of these errors are fatal. Southeast Asia is not “lost” to the United States, and China, thanks to its own mistakes, is nowhere near “winning” it.
But the story remains the same as when Biden took office: He must convince Southeast Asians why U.S. regional leadership benefits them.
At this difficult time, vaccines would be a great place to start.
Charles Dunst is a partner in the Global Macro practice of Eurasia Group, which focuses on Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This comment first appearance in the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute blog, the Fulcrum.