US Vice-President Kamala Harris delivers a speech at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore before departing for Vietnam on the second leg of her Asia trip, on August, 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein / Pool

It is 8:30 in the morning, and I have just landed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, as this is where foreign citizens are authorized to arrive, following the rules put in place in this fight against the another wave of Covid-19 infections. 

The KLIA immediately appears empty, like almost every airport during this period. Its walls seem taller, while its corridors seem larger and longer in the absence of the crowd of busy people who used to run out of the plane as soon as possible after a long flight. Everything around is quiet, and the few who tried to reach the Immigration control area feel a sort of obligation to respect that silence. 

Southeast Asia has been hit by a severe wave of Covid-19 cases recently, consequently putting under pressure the social, political and economical systems of the countries in the region. 

However, in spite of the critical situation, the region is crucial to major powers in the world, and the silence that pervades its airports, stores and streets doesn’t reflect the voices raising loudly from the international community. 

It is this region’s turn in the game with some of the major actors in the international relations chessboard, and with Southeast Asia having the chance to expand its area of influence in the wider framework of the US-China rivalry. 

The latest move in that witnesses its renewed relevance is represented by Kamala Harris’ recent visit to the region. The US vice-president arrived in Singapore on Sunday, later reaching Vietnam in a seven-day trip. The goal was clear: Remaking her country’s credibility in an effort to strengthen the image of Washington as an important ally to the region’s actors. 

Harris’ high-profile visit followed other important appointments, which saw US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and the Secretary of State Antony Blinken in five virtual ASEAN-related ministerial meetings.

In Singapore, Harris focused on security and defense cooperation, but even on new areas such as those related to the fight against the pandemic, joint efforts to deal with climate change through a US-Singapore Climate Partnership, and partnerships to reinforce cybersecurity mechanisms and the resilience of supply chains, especially in the semiconductor industry.

In Vietnam, as in Singapore, the US vice-president did not miss the chance to refer to the South China Sea. In front of officials in Hanoi, she emphasized the need to pressure Beijing on its maritime claims. 

Even if Harris emphasized that President Joe Biden’s administration is not seeking conflict with Beijing in the region, there are no doubts that the framework of the US-China rivalry really defines the context here. 

Nonetheless, understanding Southeast Asia means understanding a complex mosaic formed by different cultures, societies, and languages that have built their own unique path toward independence over the years. It means understanding that even recognizing their peculiar and diverse characteristics, they do tend to share a sense of pride when looking at the past to build their future. It is counterproductive to underestimate these aspects. 

Attempting to obligate this region to opt for one side or another would not be the right approach. Nor is it the one that makes these countries think that the renewed importance they have gained is mainly motivated by the desire to limit China’s sphere of influence.

Southeast Asian countries don’t want to choose, and they will not do it. They want to be recognized as parts of a significant economic and social hub, and build partnerships that could benefit their development in the long term.

Looking attentively into the eyes of people around you, it is possible to perceive fatigue combined with the hope of soon writing a different chapter in this story. They continue to smile, to approach you kindly in spite of the evident challenges boosted by the pandemic.

At the airport, someone told me, “It’s Monday, and it always brings the smell of new beginnings. We need them. We look for them.” Who will be able to offer these countries with the best opportunities to start again? The answer to this question will define geopolitical dynamics in the region in the near future. 

Federica Russo is research lead at Navis, an executive search firm which takes an active role to improve how business leaders are selected. Previously, she was director of research at Wikistrat, a consulting firm helping Fortune 500 corporations and governments to brainstorm solutions and obtain an in-depth understanding of their landscape by using a crowdsourcing approach. She is currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.