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Strategic Reassurance: Biden’s Post-Afghanistan Challenge in Southeast Asia

Sep 19, 2021

“The only thing worse than having allies is not having them,” lamented British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a squabble between Allied leadership during World War II. A former soldier himself, the British statesman realized the importance of strategic reassurance and credible signaling during periods of heightened geopolitical uncertainty, hence his reluctant decision to arm Soviet forces as well as join Americans in the deadly Battle of Normandy. 

When the stakes are high, Churchill realized, talk is cheap. What’s needed is a clear demonstration of strategic commitment, especially towards dithering allies. Seven decades later, the world’s reigning superpower is confronting a similar dilemma, as it seeks to reassure allies about its credibility and overall wherewithal amid a New Cold War in Asia

In recent years, the United States has sought to mobilize a coalition of likeminded powers and strategic partners to constrain a resurgent China. But only a few countries, especially in Southeast Asia, have been willing to align with a declining power against a rising rival, especially with Beijing offering large-scale trade and investment deals to cooperative neighbors and friendly nations. 

Kabul’s swift collapse following American withdrawal invoked painful memories of the ‘fall of Saigon’, when the Nixon administration unrepentantly abandoned its South Vietnamese allies. From Hanoi to Manila, Southeast Asian leaders are wondering if the U.S. can be counted upon in a crisis. Moving forward, the Biden administration and its successors face the unenviable task of reassuring allies of America’s strength, commitment, and continued determination to remain as a pillar of regional order in Asia. 

Unintended Consequences 

“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” President Biden confidently declared a month before the stunning disintegration of the Washington-aligned government in Kabul. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan,” he insisted, keeping in mind the dark memories of the Vietnam War era.

After all, U.S. intelligence agencies maintained that the Afghan government could survive for months, if not years, after the withdrawal of American troops. In the words of one American expert, these estimates were shown to be “an intelligence failure of the highest order.” As Walter Russell Mead, a leading foreign policy thinker, disdainfully tweeted, “Sentence you won't be hearing anyone saying this morning: ‘Trust the Americans. They know what they're doing.’” 

Having defined the 21st century as an existential showdown between the U.S. and superpower rivals such as China, Biden correctly realized that his country could no longer afford to sustain unwinnable, endless conflicts without eroding its competitiveness in key regions such as the Indo-Pacific. In fact, months before the debacle in Afghanistan, Washington also rolled back its interventions in the conflict in Yemen and pressed ahead with nuclear negotiations with Iran, and encouraged Middle Eastern rivals to try diplomacy rather than confrontation.  

In fact, it was Biden, then as vice-president, and the current U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, then as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, who oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq almost exactly one decade earlier. By decoupling from the Middle East, the Biden administration hopes to augment  the Pentagon’s plan to maintain "a strong military presence" in East Asia and the Western Pacific. 

Committed to this foreign policy recalibration, Biden ignored the counsel of top generals and experts, who favored the maintenance of a small residual force in Kabul and cautioned against a ‘hard and messy’ exit. The apparent overnight abandonment of Afghan partners, who expected residual and ‘over the horizon’ support from U.S. forces, proved to be fatal. 

As former top Afghan special forces commander Sami Sadat lamented, “[w]e lost our superiority to the Taliban when our air support [suddenly] dried up and our ammunition ran out” while U.S. contractors went so far as even taking away  “proprietary software and weapons systems,” thus effectively paralyzing Afghan forces. 

Damage Control 

Critics and skeptics were quick to draw broader lessons from the U.S. debacle in Afghanistan. One Taiwan-based expert told the Chinese media, "They should say the day before yesterday, Vietnam, yesterday, Taiwan and today, Afghanistan.” In turn, a Chinese expert warned "The U.S.' fleeing action” in Afghanistan is a “warning," if not a “forecast” of what could happen to other U.S. allies in Asia. Across Southeast Asia, critics and skeptics of America also made similar remarks, highlighting the pitfalls  of strategic alliance with Washington.  

Amid the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan, the Biden administration deployed two high-ranking officials to Southeast Asia in order to reassure regional allies. First came Secretary of Defense Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, which culminated in the full restoration of the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). 

Austin’s visit was broadly welcomed across the region as an indication of renewed American focus on Southeast Asia. Weeks later, Vice President Kamala Harris’ followed suit by also visiting Singapore and Vietnam, reflecting Washington’s growing focus on cultivating new regional alliances against a resurgent China. 

During her visit in Singapore, Harris sought to reassure the region by stating, “The U.S. stands with our allies and partners in the face of these threats," while clarifying that “[o]ur engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.” 

While broadly sympathetic in rhetoric, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong politely reminded his American guests, “What will influence perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region will be what the U.S. does going forward.” Throughout the years, Singaporeans have constantly reminded Washington of the necessity of tangible, constructive vision along with credible alternatives to China’s massive trade and investment projects if they seek to remain a major player in the region. 

In Vietnam, however, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh was crystal clear about country’s reservations against any overt alignment with America. Just hours before meeting Harris, the Vietnamese leader met special Chinese envoy Xiong Bo to reassure Beijing of Hanoi’s ‘neutrality’ amid the simmering New Cold War between U.S. and China.

Southeast Asian nations are also worried about the prospect of post-American Afghanistan once again turning into a training ground for transnational terrorists, who wreaked havoc across the southern Philippines, Indonesia, and other states throughout the 2010s. As the Singaporean leader told Harris, “We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again.” 

All of a sudden, the Biden administration will not only have to strengthen its trade and investment footprint in the region, but also reassure its allies and partners of its credibility and commitment against a whole host of threats, including the potential resurgence of transnational terrorism on the heels of its disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. 

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