Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh welcomes US Vice-President Kamala Harris in a government office in Hanoi on August 25, 2021. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein / Pool

“America is back” in Southeast Asia. High-level visits, participation in ASEAN-led summits, and vaccine donations herald the United States’ increasing re-commitment to the strategic and vibrant region.

Vice-President Kamala Harris arrived in Vietnam on Tuesday, after first visiting Singapore. Her trip caps an intense diplomatic courtship. It may also set the stage for President Joe Biden’s attendance at Association of Southeast Asian Nations summitry this October in Brunei.

This turn to the Indo-Pacific region, with Southeast Asia as a centerpiece, is expected to get a boost after Washington withdrew from its longest and costliest war in Afghanistan. 

After months of focus in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, the Middle East and the Quad, Washington is shifting its attention to Southeast Asia – a region at the heart of its great-power competition with China.

In late May and early June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman became the first senior US official of the Biden administration to visit the region, making stops in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. He was followed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in late July.

Early this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took part in a series of virtual ministerial gatherings with regional countries, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit. 

Washington’s recent approach hits home key priorities for Southeast Asia. Embarking on its own vaccine diplomacy and reassuring the region of US backing for its economic recovery show appreciation of what tops the region’s agenda.

As the Delta variant of Covid-19 rampages across the region, the supply of more vaccine doses is much valued. Furthermore, US support for the immediate implementation of the Five Point Consensus on Myanmar – reached in a special summit in Jakarta in April – indicates recognition of ASEAN centrality.

Finally, staying in the game to counter China’s growing influence provides options for regional countries to exercise their autonomy better. 

Economics and security are key factors driving Washington’s move to deepen engagement with the region.

Southeast Asia is the top destination of US outbound capital in the Indo-Pacific region, accounting for more US foreign investment than China, Japan, India, and South Korea combined. With more than half a billion people, half of whom reside in huge cities and with a median age of 30 years, the region’s workforce and market potential are immense.

Growing Internet penetration also makes it one of the world’s most promising digital economies.

The US is working with such partners as Japan, Australia, and the Group of Seven club to provide an alternative to China’s state-driven Belt and Road Initiative in meeting the region’s burgeoning infrastructure needs. 

At the same time, Southeast Asia is rife with flashpoints, including those that pit coastal and riparian countries against their big northern neighbor, China. Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, increasing attempts to assert jurisdiction in the contested waterway, and disruption of the marine economic activities of its littoral neighbors lead to tense standoffs and sow mistrust.

US support in regional maritime capacity-building and a 2016 arbitration ruling that nullified China’s expansive claims – along with routine challenges to Beijing’s already invalidated claims – is welcomed by coastal states.

China’s dam-building in the upper reaches of the Mekong River diminishes water flow to downstream countries, creating irritants in Beijing’s ties with mainland Southeast Asian states. Washington’s calls for greater consultation and equitable sharing of the river’s water resources resonate well among affected states. 

The choice of Singapore and Vietnam as destinations for Harris’ visit reflects these strong economic and security underpinnings.

Singapore was the world’s fourth-largest recipient of foreign capital last year. The city-state is a hub for making investments throughout the region and is home to some of its top unicorns, such as Sea, Grab and Lazada. It is the only country in the region with which the US has a free-trade agreement.

Singapore also provides the US naval and air facilities through a 1990 pact renewed in 2019 to allow continued access for another 15 years until 2035. With the Philippines, a US treaty ally, slow to implement a 2014 agreement that allows for rotational presence and prepositioning of US troops and assets, Singapore’s standing is further amplified.

This month, Singapore hosted the 20th iteration of the US-led Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) maritime exercises. This year’s drills assembled 21 Indo-Pacific nations, including countries in South and Southeast Asia. 

Vietnam, the second stop in Harris’ first trip to Asia as vice-president, is America’s largest trade partner in the region. Last year, it became the United States’ 10th-largest trade partner, surpassing India and several European countries. It is the sixth-largest source of US imports and places third among the countries with which the US runs the largest trade deficit after China and Mexico.

Vietnam is emerging as the new darling of foreign capital, climbing several notches to become the 19th-largest recipient of foreign investment last year despite the global health crisis.

The country is also the most vocal in opposing Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Last year, Washington and Hanoi inked an agreement aimed at boosting Hanoi’s fisheries law-enforcement capability.

A second US aircraft carrier made a port call in Danang last year. Vietnam is also a beneficiary of a US defense program to enhance regional maritime security and received decommissioned American cutters, which Hanoi assigned to its coast guard. 

Harris’ visit underpins the growing importance of Southeast Asia to US strategic calculus. Robust economic and security drivers suggest that this will not be a passing interest. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.