US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to cut short his tour of Southeast Asia. Photo: AFP / Jonathan Ernst

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week embarked on his first visit to Southeast Asia since President Joe Biden took office in January with the aim of elevating engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “unprecedented” levels as Washington works to forge a united regional front against China.

America’s top diplomat visited Indonesia and Malaysia, where he met with several senior officials and reiterated US commitments to the Indo-Pacific region. But Blinken was forced to cut his trip short, scrapping a visit to Thailand “out of an abundance of caution” after a member of the press corps accompanying him tested positive for Covid-19.

Asia Times’ correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian covered the visit, describing its premature end as a setback to efforts to mend fences and smooth ruffled feathers among American allies. Though as Heydarian explains in this week’s Q & A, Washington’s belated regional charm offensive has nonetheless been seen as largely successful.

What do you see as the big picture upshots of Blinken’s belated Southeast Asia tour? 

If there were one way to describe the Biden administration’s foreign policy in its first year in office, the term “hyper-diplomacy” comes to mind. Having covered the nuts and bolts of US foreign policy over the past decade, I can confidently say that I have never seen anything like this before.

Honestly, I have lost count of the number of high-level meetings, both virtual and in-person, between top US policy-makers and their counterparts across the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Without a question, US President Joseph Biden stood by his promise to restore American leadership on the international level following years of Trumpian “America Alone” unilateralism.

The world has clearly taken notice. According to a Pew Research Center survey, median global confidence in US leadership increased from just 17% in the twilight months of the Trump presidency to as high as 75% following Biden’s assumption of power.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken Blinken holds a meet and greet with the US Mission Indonesia on December 14, 2021. Photo: State Department / Ron Przysucha / WikiCommons

That said, though, the Biden administration was strangely slow-footed in its diplomatic engagement with Southeast Asia, which only picked up from July onwards. This came as a huge disappointment in a region where policy-makers and thought leaders were extremely optimistic about renewed engagement under a Biden presidency.

But once it got off the ground, the US’ charm offensive across Southeast Asia proved largely successful in regaining the trust and confidence of regional partners and allies. Within a span of a few months, three cabinet-level US officials, from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Vice-President Kamala Harris and most recently Antony Blinken, made stops across key capitals in Southeast Asia.

In the case of Vietnam and Singapore, they had more of an embarrassment of riches, having successively hosted Austin and Harris within a span of only weeks. Thus, Blinken’s visit this month was the supposed capstone to a broadly fruitful US-ASEAN “strategic reset” in Biden’s first year in office.

Blinken touched on America’s vaccine donations to the region in his public address in Indonesia. Do you think the US has gained lost ground on China in the region via its vaccine diplomacy? 

Absolutely. If you doubt this, just think of how the notoriously pro-Beijing Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte openly thanked Biden for Washington’s large-scale Covid-19 vaccine donations earlier this year.

If anything, that seemed to have sealed the deal in terms of restoring the all-crucial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the software of the Philippine-US military alliance, which was abrogated during the Trump administration amid disagreements over human rights issues.

In fact, Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are among the largest recipients of US-made Covid-19 vaccines, which have proven far more effective, trusted and reliable than their Chinese counterparts.

It’s easy to say that “vaccine diplomacy” represents a relatively low-hanging fruit, but the reality is that amid a raging pandemic it proved decisive in terms of winning hearts and minds of increasingly desperate governments in the region.

For its part, China paid the price for overpromising in terms of its vaccine diplomacy, which proved largely disappointing to many neighboring countries. Let’s not forget, the likes of Vietnam shunned Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines until the 11th hour, while public skepticism and overpriced contracts hounded Chinese vaccine diplomacy in neighboring Philippines.

The likes of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore tried to rely on Western-made vaccines as much as possible, too. But let me say this: Thanks to China, the Biden administration and its allies were likely pressured into upping their game. So in this case, the Sino-American competition has been a plus in terms of vaccine donation and public health diplomacy in the region.

Do you think Blinken’s tour restored any confidence in America’s staying power in the region, or instead reaffirmed doubts as the tour was cut short by a Covid-19 infection before reaching Thailand?

Clearly, there is disappointment in Thailand, a US treaty ally, which Washington believes has gotten too cozy with China in the past decade. The kingdom has yet to host a single cabinet-level official from the Biden administration, while it was noticeably absent among invitees to the first “Summit for Democracy” in Washington.

But can one blame Blinken for choosing caution over the prospect of a 10-day quarantine in Southeast Asia had his senior staff, if not himself, fell victim to the raging pandemic? Moreover, one can’t also blame the Biden administration, which has embraced a democracy-centered ideological completion with China, for not feeling too excited about its besieged alliance with the junta-led Thailand.

Overall, however, the Biden administration closed the year on a high note, considering how three of its cabinet members visited all major capitals, some twice, from new strategic partners such as Singapore and Vietnam to a vital treaty ally in the Philippines and, most recently, Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest nation, and Malaysia, a traditionally non-aligned country that has veered ever-closer to the West amid growing maritime tensions with China.

Getting key Southeast Asian nations on board is sine qua non to the formation of a robust US-led “integrated deterrence” strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia is the scandalous absence of any substantive trade and investment deal. No one expected the Biden administration to put a contentious multilateral, free trade agreement on the table in its first year in office.

But there are now growing expectations that the US will finally deliver on this front in the near future, both in terms of trade as well as public infrastructure development, lest it abandons a crucial battlefield to an ascendant China.

At the very least, the Biden administration will have to pitch a full-fledged digital free trade deal – as a prelude to a more ambitious Indo-Pacific economic initiative – in the coming year or so.

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