In October 2013, as the former US president Barack Obama had to cancel his four-nation tour of south-east Asia due to the congressional impasse at home, China’s president Xi Jinping, instead, made the news headlines across the region.
On that trip to Indonesia, Xi proposed to set up an Asian infrastructure investment bank to support the region’s “connectivity”. He and his Indonesian counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also announced $32bn of trade and investment deals. Then in Malaysia, Xi and the prime minister, Najib Razak, vowed to strengthen military ties and triple bilateral trade to $160bn by 2017.
In the past eight years, China’s influence in south-east Asia – a region with 11 countries and a population of more than 655 million – has continued to grow. More recently, across Asia, although China has emerged diplomatically diminished from the pandemic, Beijing is still holding ground in its overall power, according to the Lowy Institute thinktank in Sydney.
It is little surprising, therefore, this week’s visit by Joe Biden’s deputy Kamala Harris, has been closely watched, not just in south-east Asia but also in the wider Asia region.
“… Our partnerships in Singapore, in south-east Asia, and throughout the Indo-Pacific are a top priority for the United States,” Harris declared in Singapore this week during her first tour of the region. “The United States is a proud part of the Indo-Pacific. And this region is critically important to our nation’s security and prosperity.”
Inevitably, Harris also took aim at China. She accused Beijing of challenging the rules-based order, and spoke against its claims of its ownership of the vast majority of the South China Sea – a message she reaffirmed on her subsequent trip to Vietnam.
Beijing, meanwhile, accused Harris of attempting to drive a wedge between it and south-east Asia. “I think it would be much more credible if the US said it was trying to maintain its hegemony and uphold its own interests,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Harris’s first tour of the region as the most senior Biden administration official this week was significant. It reassured US partners that, unlike his predecessors, Joe Biden is paying close attention to the region. After all, barely a few months ago, some analysts in the region were saying “America has forgotten about us”, said James Crabtree, executive director of the Asia branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a thinktank.
“However, judging from what’s been said by Harris on this trip, there was little sign of the kind of big ideas and ambitious new proposals needed truly to compete with China in this part of Asia,” he said. “The question now is: can the US really produce these?”
During her visits to Singapore and Vietnam, Harris made a raft of announcements. They ranged from expanding cybersecurity collaboration with Singapore to offering free vaccines to help Vietnam combat Covid. In Vietnam, she also formally opened the new CDC south-east Asia regional office in Hanoi, which was initiated by the Trump administration last year.
These moves showed that America was willing to help when the region needed its deep expertise, “but most deliverables were piecemeal”, said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defence at the United States studies centre at the University of Sydney.
“Harris’s signature announcement – America’s offer to host Apec in 2023 – failed to live up to regional expectations for Washington to sketch out a trade and investment strategy for the region and return to the CPTPP process.”
This, according to Townshend, who is also the lead author of a new report entitled Correcting the Course: How the Biden Administration Should Compete for Influence in the Indo-Pacific, reflects how little the administration is investing in the region itself.
On the geopolitics side, during her speech in Singapore, Harris tried to reassure a nervous region that the US’s deeper engagement did not mean it would force countries to choose between Washington and Beijing. “Instead, our engagement is about advancing an optimistic vision that we have for our participation and partnership in this region,” she said.
It is a welcoming message to countries from Singapore to Thailand. Governments want the US approach to China to be “not too hot, not too cold,” said Hoang Thi Ha, lead researcher for political and security affairs from the Asean Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, in Singapore. “They would like to see the US taking a more robust, principled response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, or its bullying behaviour, but at the same time they don’t want to see any conflict at all,” she said.
But over the course of the past decade, as Chinese power grew and US commitment vacillated, there’s also a growing sense that Washington might be unable or unwilling to match this rhetoric with regional policy after all, said Townshend. The worry would continue to grow after Washington’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.
These days, some close security partners of the US are openly questioning its capacity to maintain a favourable regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Others are wondering about its willingness to resuscitate its role as a leading trade and investment partner in the region. “Coupled with Washington’s patchy diplomacy, especially in south-east Asia, these uncertainties about US regional strategy are eroding its influence, after all,” Townshend said.
With Rebecca Ratcliffe, South-east Asia correspondent