U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris completed her debut in Southeast Asia recently — one of a series of visits to the region by American officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
In the larger context of the U.S. pursuit of “stiff competition” with China, Southeast Asia has become a vital variable in the equation of U.S.-China geopolitics. But it’s not new. As early as the Obama era, Southeast Asia had been considered an integral part of the American rebalancing strategy, given the region’s intimate ties and proximity to China — and more importantly, to the South China Sea, which could be easily tapped if a country such as the U.S., with its increasing angst about China, ever saw the need.
During the Trump years, Southeast Asia was incorporated into the Indo-Pacific Strategy under the euphemism of U.S. support for “ASEAN centrality,” even though ASEAN has emphasized “inclusiveness” so as not to be seen as opposing China.
Upon taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden largely inherited Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and only made a few adjustments in rhetoric. Although the administration pursues what it calls a “peaceful coexistence” pattern with China, it also says that China poses “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century" and the U.S. relationship with China “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” In addition, the U.S. will engage China “from a position of strength.”
None of these are much different from Trump’s strategic positioning on China and the corresponding methodology of dealing with it. Since the pandemic broke out, ASEAN has become China’s largest trading partner, and the Sino-ASEAN relationship has been enhanced by vaccine cooperation and economic recovery.
As for a government trying to forge a united front against China using alliances and partners as much as possible — and hedging bets, if possible, with regard to China’s relations with its close neighbors — there has always been a temptation for the U.S. side to seek more fierce competition with China. Biden is no exception.
All this provided the background for Harris’s recent visit to Singapore and Vietnam.
First, the choice of destinations reflects U.S. emphasis on some of the key countries in the region, making engagement more effective. Singapore, small as it is, is very influential in ASEAN because of its leading ideas, smart diplomacy and soft power. It can also be categorized as a semi-ally of the U.S. because of close military cooperation. Vietnam has for a long time been trying to upgrade its relationship with the U.S., with a view toward balancing China’s influence, especially in the South China Sea. Austin also visited them, signaling an unusual U.S. emphasis.
Second, the U.S. intends to achieve multiple results through the Harris visit. At a time of much doubt about America’s capabilities and commitment to its allies, spawned by Biden’s haste and chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Harris tried to reassure friends in the region that the U.S. is still committed to “the longstanding relationship with the Indo-Pacific region and with Southeast Asian countries.”
Harris particularly wanted to convey a strong message on the South China Sea. She harshly criticized China, which she said “continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” framing the issue as China making “unlawful claims that have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision.” She repeated the old line that Beijing’s actions “continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.” All these accusations are rootless but were made with a view toward inflaming hostility toward China by countries in the region.
Moreover, the U.S. has tried to advance and broaden bilateral cooperation with the two countries, largely to serve its own China agenda. For example, in Singapore, a series of agreements were announced to address climate change, cybersecurity and the pandemic. The two sides also agreed to increase information-sharing on cybersecurity threats to financial markets, to cooperate on identifying coronavirus variants and to address supply chain issues, including a global shortage of semiconductors.
In Vietnam, Harris announced a donation of 1 million coronavirus vaccine doses to the country and the launch of a new CDC Southeast Asia regional office. She also spoke about upgrading the relationship between the two countries to a strategic partnership, as well as cooperation on climate, space, market access and maritime domains.
On the other hand, in a bid to reassure ASEAN countries, she added that the U.S. “welcomes competition and does not seek conflict with Beijing,” nor does it want to force any country in the region to take sides.
Actually both Singapore and Vietnam have expressed their intent not to follow the U.S. lead in countering China. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned the U.S. against aggressively challenging China, saying Washington’s increasingly hard-line views could be “very dangerous.” He criticized the U.S. for having moved from an approach of healthy competition with China to the view that America “must win, one way or another.”
Vietnam’s prime minister met with a Chinese envoy before Harris arrived and said developing Vietnam-China relations is a strategic choice and a top priority in Vietnam’s foreign policy. China’s vaccine aid to Vietnam also arrived earlier than the U.S. donation. He emphasized that Vietnam opposes politicizing either the pandemic or the tracing of virus origins.
All these examples show that countries in the region want to develop beneficial relationships with both the U.S. and China. As such, the U.S. hedge against China is doomed to fail.