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Foreign Policy

The Limits of Biden’s Charm Offensive in Southeast Asia

Aug 12, 2021

'I conceded the continuance of the Visiting Forces Agreement, in gratitude,' declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte following cordial exchanges with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in late-July.  “We did a give and take. We thank them and I made a concession. I conceded the continuance of the Visiting Forces Agreement, in gratitude,” the Filipino president clarified, emphasizing that his surprising policy turnabout was driven by the Biden administration’s donation of up to 6 million American-made COVID-19 vaccines in recent weeks. 

The Filipino president, who has repeatedly threatened to end the Philippines’ alliance with Washington over the years, went so far as stating, "I'd like to thank the President of the United States… Biden, the government, and the people of America for not forgetting us. Do not forget us because we share the same outlook in geopolitics, especially in Southeast Asia." The full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which facilitates large-scale American presence on Philippine soil, capped Austin’s maiden visit to Southeast Asia

From Singapore to Vietnam and the Philippines, the U.S. defense chief courted his many hosts, projected humility, and reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to maintaining robust defense strategic ties to regional partners. Amid a pandemic resurgence, he also emphasized America’s recent donation of tens of millions of desperately-needed vaccines. In the words of a top Biden official, this was "[a] game-changer in terms of how our image is perceived." 

Austin’s tour came on the heels of a broader effort by top Biden officials to win hearts and minds across one of the most contested strategic theaters, as a resurgent China rapidly expands its influence in Southeast Asia. To reassert American primacy, the Biden administration must  supplement its diplomatic charm offensive with concrete trade, investment, and defense initiatives, which have been sorely lacking in recent years. 

Catch Up Time 

Up until recently, Southeast Asian nations were openly fretting about lack of meaningful engagement with top American counterparts. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited numerous European and Asian capitals earlier this year, largely overlooked his Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts. 

A hastily-organized online summit with ASEAN diplomats was marred by technical glitches, further alienating key regional states such as Indonesia. With China sending millions of COVID-19 vaccines across the region, the U.S. also came under attack for supposed vaccine hoarding and lack of substantial support to heavily-affected regional states.  

Recognizing its strategic shortcomings, the Biden administration cranked up its Southeast Asian diplomacy in the second half of this year. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand got the ball rolling, setting the stage for Blinken’s first summit with ASEAN leaders in mid-July and, a week after, Austin’s personal visit to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  

Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam in late-August, while President Joe Biden is expected to meet his Southeast Asian counterparts on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit later this year. As if that wasn’t enough, Blinken also scheduled a flurry of meetings with Southeast Asian counterparts throughout early-August, attending virtual meetings for five consecutive days with ASEAN counterparts. 

Meanwhile, Blinken held in-person meetings with Indonesia’s visiting Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Washington D.C., as the two powers explore institutionalized bilateral “strategic dialogue” and enhanced defense cooperation. The Indonesian diplomat’ visit coincided with the largest-ever Garuda Shield exercise, which features joint exercises by more than 4,500 soldiers and personnel from Indonesia and the U.S., underscoring rapidly improved bilateral defense cooperation. 

And with the VFA restored in the Philippines, the Biden administration is also intent on fortifying joint maritime drills with its Southeast Asian treaty ally. As Austin made it clear during his keynote address at the Fullerton Forum in Singapore, Washington is committed to an “integrated deterrence” strategy, whereby the Pentagon and likeminded regional armed forces develop combined responses to shared traditional and non-traditional security threats. 

Recognizing that any regional strategy should go beyond just summitries and defense diplomacy, the Biden administration is also contemplating a digital trade pact in Asia, with China’s rising economic influence in mind. Since former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), Washington has yet to put forward any concrete economic initiative on the table, while Beijing has launched a flurry of trade and investment deals. 

A Hard Sell 

The recent upsurge in U.S.’ strategic engagement has been warmly welcomed across Southeast Asia. And many were impressed by Austin’s refreshing display of humility, most especially his open criticism of the tide of anti-Asian racism at home during his major speech in Singapore. 

His emphasis on constructive engagement with China, rather than reckless confrontation, was also reassuring to those, who lamented the Cold War rhetoric of the former Trump administration. Austin also correctly emphasized the need for the U.S. to remain competitive, including on trade and investment fronts, if it were to stand any chance of maintaining a semblance of leadership in Asia. 

Moving forward, however, the Biden administration confronts a number of challenges in Southeast Asia. To begin with, there is no shared appetite, even among strategic partners, to collectively confront China under an “integrated deterrence” approach. 

As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently pointed out during a virtual session of the Aspen Security Forum, Southeast Asian nations “greatly valued” Austin’s visit and diplomatic attention by the Biden administration. But he also made it clear that “many U.S. friends and allies wish to preserve their extensive ties with both powers.” 

“It’s vital for the U.S. and China to strive to engage each other to head off a clash, which would be disastrous for both sides, and the world,” he added, expressing the preference of ASEAN nations for a more collaborative relationship or, at the very least, a healthy competition between the two superpowers. 

No wonder then, many regional states may have second thoughts about even joining any economic initiative, especially one overtly aimed at countering China. And it’s doubtful whether a ‘digital’ trade pact alone, if ever finalized and implemented, would go nearly far enough in matching China’s rapidly expanding traditional and digital trade footprint in Southeast Asia. 

Even among China’s maritime rivals in the South China Sea, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, the Biden administration is facing an uphill struggle. While the VFA restoration was crucial, it’s not the real deal when it comes to enhancing joint efforts at countering Beijing’s expanding maritime footprint in adjacent waters. 

President Duterte has yet to relax restrictions on the implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was expressly designed to bolster American military footprint close to the disputed land features and boost the Philippines’ maritime defense capabilities against an assertive China. 

And as for Vietnam, normalized bilateral ties with the U.S. are yet to translate into major defense deals or regularized large-scale naval drills in the South China Sea. Disagreements over human rights issues, and Hanoi’s deep economic interdependence with China, could continue hampering any major uptick in U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation. 

Overall, the Biden administration has been successful in generating much-needed good will across Southeast Asia. But it’s far from clear whether it could translate its newfound diplomatic capital into concrete initiatives, from “integrated deterrence” to major trade deals, in the region. 

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