US' diplomatic overtures to Asean
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US' diplomatic overtures to Asean

The visit by US Vice President Kamala Harris to Southeast Asia later this month underlines the importance of the 10-member bloc to US foreign policy strategy under Joe Biden's presidency.

Besides helping to shore up Washington's engagement in the broader Asian region, which shrank under Mr Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, Ms Harris's trip is strategically aimed at countering China's growing influence globally.

Ms Harris will "share the Biden administration's vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific" when she visits Singapore and Vietnam from Aug 22 to 26, her office said in a statement. In talks with officials, she will raise trade and security issues, including in the South China Sea, and promote economic cooperation.

Mr Biden has been declaring that "America is back" ever since he took office seven months ago. Now he is starting to back that slogan with more action to counter China's diplomatic and military incursions in the region.

The president has yet to travel to the region, but Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were the first two world leaders to meet him in person at the White House, underscoring the importance of US relationships in the region.

Ms Harris will become the first US vice president to visit Vietnam on her second overseas trip, following a two-day swing through Guatemala and Mexico in June to address the challenges of growing migration to the US.

Her arrival follows recent trips by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Japan and South Korea, and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who travelled to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines to pledge US support against Beijing's intrusions in the South China Sea.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman also travelled to Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia in May and early June. Last month she visited Japan, South Korea and Mongolia before heading to China for high-level talks that ultimately did little to resolve the deep divisions between the two countries.

Mr Blinken attended a virtual regional foreign ministerial meeting on July 14 as well as an Asean gathering on Aug 4. On Aug 6 he took part in the online Asean Regional Forum, which was also attended by representatives from Japan, China, India, Russia and the European Union.

Southeast Asia has become the latest front in the coronavirus pandemic, pushing important meetings online. But virtual talks lack the weight of traditional face-to-face diplomacy.

A White House official said the pandemic, vaccinations and quality of vaccines would also be a top priority for Ms Harris. Last month, Washington shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna Covid vaccine to Vietnam, bringing total donations to Hanoi to 5 million.

"It's really part of an overall unified administration engagement strategy that shows our comprehensive engagement in East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia as well," said Phil Gordon, deputy national security adviser to Ms Harris.

However, it's puzzling and disappointing that the same Asean countries have been targeted for visits by both Mr Austin and Ms Harris. Regional powerhouses Indonesia and Thailand, which would have been prioritised in the past, have been left out despite the fact that they have led many of the important decisions made by the group. Indonesia recently played a key role in the bloc's response after the February military coup in Myanmar.

That said, Singapore plays a significant role in providing logistical support for US military aircraft and ships, while Vietnam and the Philippines have been directly confronting China over their respective maritime claims.

On the other hand, some might believe Washington is sending an early warning to Indonesia and Thailand, which appear to have grow more noticeably pro-China in recent years.

Competition between the US and China makes it difficult for Asean members to find common ground, but it does not necessarily mean the bloc cannot force compromise and cooperation from both sides. Nothing good can come from a conflict, and Asean as well as other US allies need to preserve their ties with both powers.

The main stumbling block is the unanimous agreement Asean requires to advance the group's interests. To me personally, the choice of destinations for Ms Harris may be a bit disappointing as it focuses on individual countries' strategic benefits to the US, but it could also reflect time constraints. At least we are starting to see the US deepening its commitments in Asean, and more strategic engagement will follow.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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