US Vice President Kamala Harris meets with civil society change makers who work on LGBT, transgender, disability rights and climate change, at the US Chief of Mission's residence in Hanoi, Vietnam, August 26, 2021. (Photo by EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / POOL / AFP)

SINGAPORE – The Joe Biden administration has rarely missed an opportunity to stress the critical importance of Southeast Asia to its Indo-Pacific agenda of containing China’s influence and rise. But until a string of recent high-level visits to the strategic region, observers noted that little had been done to match its words with deeds.

Now, Washington hopes that Vice President Kamala Harris’ seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam this week will influence perceptions of America’s resolve and commitment following the administration’s slow start in engaging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its members’ leaders.

Some political analysts and observers see the vice president’s visit and her strong reaffirmation of partnerships in the region as a clear counter to earlier criticism of the administration’s foreign policy neglect. But the United States’ outreach is ultimately still seen as being heavy on symbolism and short on concrete and meaningful proposals.

With pointed criticism of Beijing aplenty, the Biden administration has to carefully frame its regional initiatives on their merits and as separate from any explicit agenda to confront China, which analysts say would dampen support from Southeast Asian nations seeking to balance their relations with Washington and Beijing.

In a speech in Singapore on August 24, Harris said the US would stand with its allies and partners in confronting Chinese “coercion” and “intimidation” in the South China Sea but assured that “our engagement in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.”

Speaking the next day in a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Harris said the two countries needed “to find ways to pressure, to raise the pressure” on Beijing to abide by a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that favored the Philippines and rejected China’s expansive claims in the disputed waters.

Chinese state media reports accused Harris of seeking to drive a wedge between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors and lambasted US credibility in the wake of a disorderly retreat from Afghanistan following the rapid advance of Taliban forces and their seamless seizure of power in Kabul.

US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pose for a photograph in the Government office in Hanoi on August 25, 2021. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein / Pool

Hours before Harris’ arrival in Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh reportedly held an unannounced meeting with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo, during which Chinh, according to a government statement that appeared worded to ease Chinese anxieties, said Vietnam “does not align itself with one country against another.”

Remarks by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan ahead of Harris’ visit were also emphasized in Chinese state media. He said Singapore will “be useful but we will not be made use of” in its relations with both China and the US, and that the trade-reliant city-state would not become “one or the other’s stalking horse to advance negative agendas.”

Stephen Olson, a senior research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation, a philanthropic organization that promotes global trade, said that the US and China view ASEAN as an arena in which they must compete for influence, and in turn, regional countries have sought to tactically play “the two elephants” off against each other.

“The idea is to allow the US and China to compete for influence and favor in the region while maximizing the leverage and benefits that accrue from the contest. Singapore has elevated this balancing act to an art form, but most ASEAN members practice it to one degree or another. China is now perceived to have the upper hand in the region,” he said.

Amid perceptions of the US losing diplomatic ground, Washington has dialed up its regional engagement in recent weeks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visiting Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in July and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s participation in multi-day talks, conducted virtually, with ASEAN foreign ministers earlier this month.

Harris is the most senior US official to visit the region since Biden took office in January and the first sitting vice president to visit former battlefield adversary Vietnam. Analysts see the trip, her second abroad since visiting Guatemala and Mexico in June, as an opportunity for Harris, a potential candidate for the 2024 presidential election, to build political capital on the global stage.

Hunter Marston, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, said the recent uptick in US engagement with Southeast Asia has been planned for some time but is in many ways overdue, with Biden being relatively slow to appoint ambassadors to the region and having not yet communicated with any regional heads of state by phone.

“The Biden administration recognizes that the region is the epicenter of its competition with China for influence and values, but without high-level attention and in-person visits, Southeast Asian leaders were likely beginning to doubt the power of US commitment beyond rhetorical promises,” said Marston.

Singapore and Vietnam were among only two ASEAN nations named in the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance report released in March outlining partner nations that Washington intends to deeply engage as part of its broader Indo-Pacific strategy, with visits by Harris and Austin clearly aimed at buttressing that objective. 

While not a US treaty ally, Singapore is one of Washington’s strongest security partners in the region with which it frequently conducts bilateral naval exercises. Vietnam, a South China Sea claimant, has emerged as a key American partner in recent years, sharing a common opposition to China’s maritime expansionism.  

A Vietnamese military personnel stands guard on a deserted road in Ho Chi Minh City on August 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Pham Tho

Harris fielded questions about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan during a joint press conference in Singapore with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was asked by a reporter about whether his “calculus” had changed about relying on Washington as a partner in the region as a result of the chaotic evacuation efforts.

Lee replied by saying that countries in Southeast Asia would pay close attention to how the US repositions itself and engages partners and allies in the region while keeping up efforts to fight terrorism, and offered the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s multi-role tanker transport aircraft to help assist in the evacuation of Afghan refugees.

The US and Singapore concluded a range of agreements on cybersecurity, climate, epidemic intelligence sharing, and economic cooperation during Harris’ visit. The vice president also took part in a supply chain resilience dialogue with private sector leaders that touched on issues such as production delays stemming from the ongoing global chip shortage.

In a policy speech in the city-state, Harris proposed that the US host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2023 in a break with the previous Republican-led administration’s disinterest in the 21-nation intergovernmental forum, which former president Donald Trump declined to attend two years in a row.

While in Vietnam, Harris vowed to donate 1 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses to the country, which is facing its deadliest-yet Covid-19 outbreak driven by the more transmissible Delta variant, and launched the opening of a new regional office of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Vietnamese capital.

According to the US embassy, the center, one of just four in the world, aims to “protect Americans and people of the region by responding more rapidly to health threats.” The US has donated 6 million vaccine doses to Vietnam in total and committed US$23 million to support Hanoi’s efforts to fight the pandemic during Harris’ visit.

Analysts say Washington’s image in the region has been boosted by the comparative effectiveness of its mRNA-based vaccines relative to Chinese-made vaccines that are widely in use across Southeast Asia. China’s ambassador to Vietnam reportedly announced a donation of 2 million vaccine doses to the country hours before Harris’ arrival.

A street artist paints a mural depicting Covid-19 frontline workers along a street in Hanoi on June 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Nhac Nguyen

Maritime security was prominently in focus during Harris’ talks with Vietnamese leaders. Reuters cited an unnamed White House official who said the vice president offered increased visits by US warships and aircraft carriers and other joint maritime activities, though it isn’t clear whether Hanoi responded affirmatively to the proposals.

Absent from the agenda of the two-nation tour were discussions on a future broad trade pact. Both Singapore and Vietnam are members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an earlier iteration of which was championed by the Democratic Barack Obama administration.

But the agreement was later abandoned by the Trump administration, and the lack of a comprehensive US trade offering to counterbalance China’s initiatives has been a sticking point for America’s ASEAN economic partners ever since. The possibility of smaller agreements, such as on digital trade, was reportedly discussed during Harris’ visit to Singapore.

Academic Marston said that while digital economy and supply chain initiatives were not insignificant, signaling an intent to join the CPTPP would send a much more tangible signal to the region. “Unfortunately, the Biden administration likely calculates that the political mood in Washington is not yet ripe for such a major undertaking,” he said.

“The administration may think that it needs more political capital before making such a push, but it should begin laying the groundwork for rejoining the CPTPP now by explaining the benefits clearly and consistently while sending the right signals to regional leaders in Hanoi and Singapore,” Marston added.

Steven Okun, a senior advisor at trade consultancy McLarty Associates, said cooperation on digital trade was “an obvious and easy area for bilateral progress” and important for the post-pandemic global economy, and agreed that Washington would ultimately need to pursue a full-fledged free trade agreement with Southeast Asian nations.

“Regional partners understand the US needs time to reframe its trade policies and get its domestic agenda aligned, but the administration cannot, and presumably does not, assume that they will sit around and wait forever, especially given the pace of changes and growth of the digital economy,” Okun told Asia Times.

Complicating matters for the US is the fact that several ASEAN countries are bound into closer trade relationships with China through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed last November, a broad agreement that analysts say has put Beijing in a better position to shape the rules of regional trade.

Leaders of ASEAN, Australia, China, Japan, Republic of Korea and New Zealand witnessed the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, agreement via an online platform on November 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

Okun said it would make sense for Washington to start with a sectoral agreement on digital trade that would not require congressional approval and be both “far easier to negotiate and extremely relevant for the times.” Discussions on supply chains would also help to address short-term specific challenges more so than any trade agreement, he argued.

“Semiconductors, healthcare products, and transportation lead times are real challenges facing businesses and could have a political impact in the US. Not being able to buy holiday gifts in December and a shortage of goods adds to inflationary pressures – voters really care about this and could show up in the administration’s approval ratings,” he said.

The Hinrich Foundation’s Olson was less sanguine about the Biden administration’s value proposition, saying that Biden’s “US worker-centric trade policy, his emphasis on ‘Buy American’, and desire to relocate supply chains closer to home presents more of a threat than an economic boon for Southeast Asia.”

Olson, a former international trade negotiator in Washington DC who served on the US negotiating team for NAFTA negotiations, said the US “simply has less to offer the region” in terms of economic leadership given that China had already displaced the US as the leading trade and investment partner for a majority of countries in the region.

Moreover, in the shadow of the Biden administration’s “calamitous security pullback” from Afghanistan, maritime security commitments underwritten by the US Seventh Fleet are no longer a given, Olson argued. “There is ample reason to question whether the US remains willing to provide the implicit or explicit security guarantees it has in the past,” he said.

While ASEAN is apprehensive about China potentially dominating the region in overbearing ways, there is declining confidence in the US’ ability to act as a substantial counterweight. “The Biden administration is concerned by the rising influence of China in the region but is either unwilling or unable to meaningfully reassert US relevance,” Olson argued.

“Its policy is instead based on the hope that Zoom sessions, verbal affirmations and gestures can create the appearance of a relevant, revitalized engagement it has thus far shown no sign of effectuating. Symbolic gestures from the US to reassert leadership in Southeast Asia will not convince ASEAN leaders.”