It is difficult to imagine the region or the world without US involvement. After the Afghanistan debacle, it has become increasingly clear that President Joe Biden is in reverse gear with his new doctrine. The rest of the world must now come to grips with this new reality, which could come as fast as the collapse of Kabul.
He has recently made two hallmark points absolutely clear. First, "we must set missions with clear achievable goals -- not ones we will never reach". Second, "we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interests of the United States of America". To understand the future American agenda and approach to the world in the post-Kabul era, it is important to tackle the second issue first.
From now on, Washington needs to define its own diplomatic and security objectives more carefully if the country really wants to zero in on fundamental national security interests. Afghanistan is a good case study. These two objectives often collide causing uncertainties about US priorities. Like it or not, the US will continue to be on the list of world's top military powers and its leading democratic country, even after it has reduced armed engagements in certain parts of the world. US soft power, which has been the cultural staple of the global community, will remain strong and continue to proliferate.
The Biden administration's emphasis on liberal democratic values and norms, while commendable, is likely to be seen as attrition by some quarters of the global community. The Biden doctrine is now focusing on strengthening the home base and friends in the Western world which share the same values. The Covid-19 pandemic has partially upended traditional diplomatic practices and rule of law including the principles of reciprocity and carrot-and-stick. Under the serious and continuous threat from the novel coronavirus, nearly all developing countries need instant assistance from developed partners to improve their public health security. Great powers sense unique opportunities to win friendship and goodwill through vaccine diplomacy.
Since June's rollout of American-made vaccines to developing countries, the overall American image has improved dramatically. Mr Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris as well as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have kept repeating that the American vaccines are being given free and without any conditions attached in order to save lives. Washington has boosted vaccine engagement to the next level.
The Biden administration has already planned for the virtual Summit for Democracy in December. The whole world will be watching how the US can further push for global democratisation when the country has still yet to come to terms with the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol building. This forum could have unintended consequences in driving further wedges among developing countries, which are diligently combating the virus, and their apparent democratic back-sliding.
From the Western perspective, some developing countries are allegedly using the lockdown and other stringent measures against Covid-19 as instruments to gag personal freedom and ban political activities. In fact, such views have been the axiom of liberal democracies, even though they have vigorously adopted similar measures to combat the virus leading to numerous demonstrations and arrests.
To achieve the first point, that the US must set forth achievable goals, not ones that cannot not be reached. This realisation should have manifested itself some two decades ago when the US still retained high credibility, prestige, power and admiration throughout the world. To adopt this posture today would mean that the US is drawing down its own engagement around the world with fewer deliverables. Such a pathway could impact allies and friends that have strategic assets but are without the preferred values and norms. Countries in the region such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia immediately come to mind. Within Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the exception due to its unique strategic value to the US.
Strictly defined, the US new approach will limit its involvement with foreign countries, Southeast Asia in particular. The concept of nation-building or a community of democracies, which should go hand in hand, that has been part of American advocacy has been further marginalised by Mr Biden's comments on Afghanistan. In other words, the US will have to think twice, or abandon, efforts to remake foreign societies. Whatever resources now available would be better used for the domestic front.
Within the region, Mr Biden's preferred approach will heighten the level of animosity with Washington's foes, Russia and China, as well as their partners and friends. Both countries have maintained broad-based influence throughout Southeast Asia. Despite the demise of the former Soviet Union, Russia continues to reign in terms of military power and hardware. Russia exports more arms than the US to the region and this trend will increase.
In the economic realm, China will have a stronger presence from now on. The latest trade figures show that China will recover faster from the negative impacts caused by the pandemic. Fortunately, regional value chains remain intact albeit with some damage. Southeast Asia's economy will benefit economically. For instance, during the first seven months of this year, Thai-Chinese trade reached US$74.2 billion, a 30% increase compared to the same period last year. It is expected to surpass US$120 billion in 2021. It is futile for the US to try to push back the region's overall ties with China.
Obviously, with the perceived disengagement by the US, major powers such as the European Union, United Kingdom, India, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand will have to seize the opportunity to augment their roles to fill in the void left by the US. The region's key challenges will rest on its ability to synergise various existing paradigms and implement them by building on existing cooperation.
In that way, it is hoped that the US can build back better, especially in security and strategic areas with ample burden-sharing from Western allies and friends. Regional countries will also respond swiftly to the new US template according to their security needs. That would have a positive long-term effect in reducing tensions in the region. Without the hype pushed by the US, the region would be free to realign power relations and cooperation in ways that would promote its stability and prosperity.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.