For Vice President Kamala Harris, it’s all about saving the US’ image and commitment to Southeast Asia as President Joe Biden’s absence sets in. Despite Washington arguing that the President’s absence is to do with scheduling, ASEAN members see it as a “diplomatic snub” as he is set to travel to India for the G20 Summit and later to Vietnam.
This has raised questions about the US’s commitment to helping Southeast Asia stem China’s aggressive dominance in the region. Michael Vatikiotis, regional journalist and author of several books on Asia, believes Biden’s absence is a cold, calculated decision to reinforce the ongoing stress on consolidating individual allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and now Vietnam. “It’s all about spooking China and picking each of these countries off one by one is easier, rather than in a multilateral forum where Beijing will be present.”
The US wants to create a network around China, as Kurt Campbell says a carefully strung together geographic necklace of countries that see Beijing as a mutual threat. Regional observers say it would be a big mistake if the US allows China’s influence to grow. And countries in Southeast Asia are drifting away from both, the US and China. Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia, no longer feels it needs to kowtow to either Beijing or Washington to ensure its relevance.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said countries in the region and the East Asia Summit believe they are important centers for discussion. They feel the US presidents don’t treat them with the same respect that they would at an important European meeting.
Gregory Poling, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US needs to invest focus and attention on regional powers that are not aligned with either Washington or Beijing. “If we envision the US and China being in a long-term strategic competition in the global south among non-aligned states Indonesia, alongside India and Vietnam, these are heavyhitters.”
However, the White House said Harris’ attendance demonstrates the US’ commitment to partnership with ASEAN countries. The US vice president plans to advance initiatives to promote shared prosperity and security, including work on the climate crisis, maritime security, infrastructure, and economic growth.