The high-profile visit of the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to Southeast Asia came to an end. Harris concluded her trip to Singapore and Vietnam with what seemed empty promises and left the international audience somehow bewildered regarding the U.S. administration’s foreign policy for Southeast Asia.
Security and defense have traditionally been the main objectives for the alliance between the U.S. and the Southeast Asia nations and indeed so, during her visit in both countries, Harris reassured that the primary focus is to maintain security cooperation with the countries of the region. In order to do so, the Vice President devoted particular attention to the South China Sea issue. In her closing remarks in Vietnam, Harris stated that China’s bullying and excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea will be challenged by the strong U.S. Navy until China abides to UNCLOS. Additionally, in Singapore the Vice President stated that the new era brings new challenges and proposed that cybersecurity and clean energy be included in the agenda. Although Harris publicly offered new domains for cooperation between the U.S. and the Southeast Asian states, the aftermath of this first high-profile visit in the region puzzled a lot, with some arguing that until now Biden’s Southeast Asia policy has been a disappointment to the region, which expected far more from the new administration. Others argue that evidently Biden’s Southeast Asian policy lacks clarification. Truthfully, the Southeast Asian states have waited for a clearer U.S. engagement in the region, especially after Trump’s vague approach. Biden’s foreign policy vision that America Must Lead Again places the Southeast Asia region in the epicenter of it, the main goal being to win the competition against China in order for the U.S. to maintain its national economic security, but until now this policy is not evident.
Easier said than done, the new administration significantly undermined that the Southeast Asia region and the South China Sea dispute are the most complex foreign policy gordian notes of our era. For one to understand why is it so difficult for Biden to construct a clear foreign policy for Southeast Asia one must examine the near past. In the early 1990’s China’s military was under a rapid modernization, especially in airborne and maritime assault and in 1998 the U.S. and China signed the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement which restricted the People’s Liberation Army of China to operate outside of territorial Chinese waters. The U.S. always maintained as a foreign policy priority 1) to discourage any rivals from deteriorating regional security and 2) not to “permit an adversary to disrupt the global supply chain by attempting to block vital sea-lines of communication and commerce”. In addition, the Pivot to Asia policy by the former President Barack Obama combined the pre-existing U.S. military might with its economic superiority by partaking in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and bringing the Southeast Asian countries closer to the U.S. orbit. Additionally in 2013 the U.S. openly supported the Philippines against China, regarding the South China Sea dispute, which resulted in Philippines 2016 victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. From 1998 until 2016 the U.S. had built a competitive foreign policy agenda for the Southeast Asia region which combined economic, military, power alliance forming which gave the U.S. the upper hand.
Nevertheless, China’s priorities shifted and in 2012 the former President of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao, declared that China is to become a maritime power. Consequently, in 2013 the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping announced the famous now Belt and Road Initiative, Belt refers to land infrastructure connecting China with the western regions of the world and Road refers to the Maritime Silk Road which begins from the SCS and initially included Africa and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road pointed out the significant importance of the South China Sea, which has been characterized as the “throat of global sea routes”, not only for China but for all countries involved. The Maritime Silk Road investments are concentrated in construction of new ports which aim to boost, the already working in full capacity, maritime roads. As a result, one of the strongest opponents of China regarding the South China Sea issue, the Philippines, three months after the Permanent Court decision altered its foreign policy, aiming to move away from its traditional ally the U.S. and opening up to China. This geopolitical attempt to reunite China with the other claimant states of the South China Sea and Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signalized the U.S. economic withdrawal from the region which turned the tables in favor of Beijing. At the same time the President of People’s Republic of China declared that China’s priority is to become a world class military power and in 2019 included his ambitions in the China’s National Defense in the New Era white paper which stated the primarily military objective is to “conduct vessel protection, maintains the security of strategic sea lines of communications, and carries out overseas evacuation and maritime protection operations.” In addition, the last years China and the Southeast Asian states have become each-other’s largest trading partner, leaving the U.S. behind in a region that it depends heavily on.
In order for Biden’s administration to create a new and clear foreign policy for Southeast Asia, it has to come up with a creative plan. Which should combine economic, military, power alliances and at it must offer more than China does and with less demands. As long as Beijing has the upper hand in the Southeast Asia region Biden’s policy will be vague, unclear and will continue disappoint its regional allies.