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In recent months, the United States, under the administration of Joe Biden, has been trying to bolster its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia.
This move comes after the tumultuous and controversial rule of former US President Donald Trump, whose populist and nationalistic policies led to the weakening of U.S. ties in the region, as seen in his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which was arguably the largest trade deal between the United States and several other nations. This incident dealt a huge blow to America’s credibility and inadvertently helped strengthen China’s sway in the region.
Biden has been trying to reverse much of the damage done by his less-than-stellar predecessor’s “America First” policy and this is best exemplified by the actions taken by his administration in 2021.
Biden began his term by rejoining several international agreements, treaties, and associations that the United States left under Trump’s rule, such as the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. And towards the middle of last year, Biden finally made moves to re-establish the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia.
Catherin Dalpino, professor emeritus at Georgetown University, in her article titled “Washington Finds Its Feet In Southeast Asia,” states that the United States entered a “diplomatic surge” in the region. Its efforts began with the failed attempt of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to organize a virtual US-ASEAN meeting with ASEAN leaders. The meeting did not happen due to the lack of a stable internet connection, leading to a failed setup for the event.
This was a terrible first impression on the part of America. However, the United States atoned for its early missteps by organizing several high-profile visits to a number of countries in Southeast Asia.
This began with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s trip to Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand in late May and early June. And it was followed by Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin’s visits to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in late July. Late August also saw the brief stopover of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield in Bangkok.
Although the presence of these high-profile U.S. officials already underscored America’s seriousness in its attempt to reconnect with Southeast Asia, the highlight of these efforts was Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Singapore and Vietnam. This historic trip made her the first U.S. vice president to ever step foot on Vietnamese soil.
However, these are just the first steps the United States has to take in order to re-establish links with Southeast Asia; America faces an uphill battle in terms of regaining an economic and political foothold in the region.
Southeast Asia has always been a hotbed of social and political strife with each nation having to deal with its own fair share of domestic problems alongside several international concerns affecting them at any given time.
As such, U.S. diplomacy constantly faces an ongoing difficult struggle in securing allies and gaining support from these countries. Added to this, the rising trend of authoritarianism in the region only compounds Uncle Sam’s woes.
Southeast Asia’s tendency to lean towards authoritarianism has been an ever-growing concern for America. Journalist Ben Barber describes this phenomenon as similar to the proliferation of bamboo “which spreads its shoots underground, past fences and across property lines and borders.”
He adds that this has led U.S. allies in the region, such as Thailand and the Philippines, to “stifle the press, curb democracy, and quell critical voices that embarrass those in power.”
This puts America at ideological odds with several Southeast Asian countries, which in turn, strains several avenues of diplomacy and cooperation.
Related to this is the growing presence of China in the region and the rising tensions in the South China Sea. For the past decade, China has been strengthening trade relations between various Southeast Asian nations.
At the same time, China has simultaneously claimed most of the South China Sea as part of its sovereign jurisdiction and illegally encroached into the territories of Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian nations for its own personal gain.
The mainland has also harassed and sunk many maritime vessels from several Southeast Asian countries, illegally harvested fish and other natural resources from these contested waters, and has been building several artificial islands to solidify its hold in the region.
COVID-19 still remains an issue in Southeast Asia with countries such as Singapore and Vietnam going through their own localized surges. Added to this, Catherin Dalpino’s article also states that the region boasts some of the world’s highest death rates. She also mentions that there is a massive preference for Western over Chinese vaccines in Southeast Asia and that; the United States might be able to use this to its advantage further down the line.
As a result of the pandemic, the economies of Southeast Asia have been negatively impacted. Dalpino notes that economic growth in the region was abysmal in 2021, shaking the confidence of foreign investors. She adds that recovery from this slump will also prove to be challenging and that countries with a strong manufacturing base, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, will bounce back faster than those with a more service-oriented economy, such as Thailand.
Regarding more specific concerns, Dalpino’s article underscores the ongoing turmoil in Myanmar. Since the military took control of the government on Feb 1, 2021, the junta has been weaponizing the pandemic to squash civil resistance. Dalpino states that the Myanmar armed forces have been “reserving vaccines for military use; continuing to arrest and detain doctors and other health workers, and occasionally firing on civilians lined up to receive oxygen for COVID treatment.”
Aside from pandemic concerns, Myanmar is also undergoing a civil war with the opposition’s new military arm, the People’s Defense Force. Both parties are engaged in violent conflict in several provinces in the country.
The actions of the opposition in combating military rule have also led armed ethnic groups to step-up their ongoing operations against the Myanmar government. In response to this, Dalpino states that the ruling Myanmar government has “strengthened ties with China and Russia: for arms, economic aid, and political support.”
In dealing with this situation, the US has continued to impose economic sanctions against the junta leaders and their families but has neglected to impose broader punishments that would severely cripple the Myanmar economy.
At the same time, U.S. lawmakers do not want to support the ongoing insurgency of opposition forces. Hence, the United States finds itself paralyzed in the face of the developments in Myanmar while other countries, such as China, take advantage of this situation.
This precarious issue is also made even more complicated by the fact that ASEAN remains divided not only in how to approach Myanmar but in a plethora of other matters as well. Ben Bland in his article, “ASEAN Muddles Through on Myanmar,” argues that the ASEAN’s stance on Myanmar – including barring the current junta leadership from attending ASEAN meetings even though the country itself still remains a member – is a manifestation of the division between Southeast Asian countries and their competing concerns.
Furthermore, he states that while ASEAN is governed by “broad aims and functioning principles,” it has no clear guidelines on how to deal with issues that lead to both domestic and regional instability. And in the absence of such rubrics, each country’s needs and political leanings affect how they approach the problems in question.
Hence, the United States has to masterfully take into consideration the different political circumstances of each individual ASEAN country, as well as how the United States’ actions may affect its relationships with the other Southeast Asian nations. If the United States wants to successfully reinsert itself as a dominant player in the region, this is the game it has to play.
Consistency is key to America’s success in the region. It has to show ASEAN members that it is willing to invest time and money not only into the region as a whole but also into the stakes of individual Southeast Asian countries.
By contrast, these nations also have to show the United States that they are willing to compromise and work together with America if they want to reap the benefits of their arrangement; both sides have to ensure that they are not merely paying lip service.
This mutual exchange also applies to America’s dealings with Vietnam. During her visit to the country, Vice President Kamala Harris pressured the Vietnamese government to ensure the protection of human rights.
As such, the United States has to remain firm in making sure that Vietnam follows through with its commitments. Likewise, if Vietnam wants to secure a steady flow of American dollars to flow into its coffers, it needs to do its part as well.
The establishment of good faith and trust among all parties must be reached in order for progress to be made in Southeast Asia; the United States has to show that it is here to stay and not drop everything and leave, as with its abrupt withdrawal from the TPP.
Nevertheless, the re-entry of America into Southeast Asia presents a challenge to Chinese hegemony in the region, at least for the immediate future. It gives ASEAN countries an alternate partner for commerce and trade while also providing them a second path for development aside from China’s insistence on its Belt and Road Initiative.
And at the very least, Biden’s America may be more open to discussion and compromise when compared to Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China.
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