Washington’s Outreach to Southeast Asia

Events in Afghanistan have overshadowed most other developments in U.S. foreign policy, including Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent travel to Singapore and Vietnam. Yet, combined with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visits to these two countries and the Philippines in July, the Vice President’s trip signals renewed American engagement in Southeast Asia. Home to almost 700 million people across 11 countries, Southeast Asia is frequently cited by U.S. foreign and defense policy officials as crucial to American interests in the Indo-Pacific. China, however, places similar import on the region and enjoys advantages over the United States in projecting its influence there. 

China is the region’s largest trading partner and a linchpin in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new trade agreement involving economies across Asia. China also lavishes billions of dollars in loans through its Belt and Road Initiative on infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia. In contrast, the United States has not proposed any major multilateral economic agreements in Asia since the Trump administration withdrew from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Nonetheless, the United States is still viewed as a valuable regional partner. China’s militarization of disputed reefs and atolls in the South China Sea has drawn condemnation from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. These countries benefit from American diplomatic support and Freedom of Navigation Operations in opposing Chinese claims. On his recent trip, Secretary Austin noted that while the United States “is not asking for countries to choose” between the superpowers, it is intent on cultivating relationships to “deter conflict in every case and every opportunity.” How the Biden administration builds on its latest diplomatic overtures in pursuit of this goal could have great importance for the region and U.S.-China relations.

Questions and Background

  • How should the U.S. deepen economic and political ties with countries like Vietnam and improve relationships with existing partners like the Philippines? 
  • How can the Biden administration use economic statecraft to demonstrate its strategic commitment in the region? 
  • To what extent should human rights and democracy advocacy feature in U.S. relationships with Southeast Asian countries, many of which are only partly democratic? Is focusing on values the right strategy to counter China in the region?

What Were the Main Outcomes of Kamala Harris’ Trip to Southeast Asia?
Sebastian Strangio. The Diplomat. August 27, 2021.

How Biden Can Save His China Strategy After Afghanistan 
Gabe Scheinmann and Mike Green. Foreign Policy. August 25, 2021. 

America Still Needs to Rebalance to Asia
Zack Cooper and Adam Liff. Foreign Affairs.August 11, 2021. 

Pawn or Queen? ASEAN on the Chessboard
Michael Green. CSIS. June 25, 2021. 

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