US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ recent trip to Southeast Asia may signify that the US is changing the way it manages relations with the region, where most countries are wary of picking sides in its escalating rivalry with China, diplomatic observers say.
Harris promised that the US was not seeking “zero-sum” engagement with Southeast Asia, but sharply rebuked China’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea during a speech in Singapore.
Two days later, in Hanoi, she told Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc that the two countries “need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims”.
She also said the US also wanted to upgrade its relationship with its former adversary to a strategic partnership, promising to support Vietnam’s digital economy, donate a million doses of Covid-19 vaccine, open a new regional Centres for Disease Control office and build a new US$1.2 billion US embassy compound.
In addition, she also announced that the Peace Corps would start operating in Vietnam after 17 years of negotiations – a stark contrast to China where the organisation ended its operations last year.
Xu Liping, a Southeast Asia affairs specialist with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the visit may be an effort to “reassure” the region of Washington’s commitment and dispel doubts that it is serious about “highlighting Asean centrality as a core component of the free and open Indo Pacific strategy”.
“China has significantly cemented ties with Southeast Asia amid the pandemic, particularly in vaccine supplies and anti-pandemic cooperation, and the US is now offering some very practical promises,” Xu said. “In this case, I think Harris’s trip could be a message from Washington that Southeast Asia remains a high priority.”
Harris’s trip came at a time when questions are growing about America’s credibility as an ally following its chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, but Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the impact on its reputation may be “short-term”.
“Southeast Asia may eventually benefit from America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as the US will be able to concentrate its strategic attention and resources on other regions more important to America’s interests, including Southeast Asia,” Le argued.
He said the Biden administration is likely to step up engagement with the region, adding: “In the future, I believe the Biden administration will send more senior officials to visit other Southeast Asian countries as well.
“Regional countries will soon put the Afghanistan episode behind them and focus more on what happens in their relationships with America, as well as the relationship between America and China.”
However, China tried to counter the US, delivering 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Vietnam a day before Harris’s visit started.
The Chinese ambassador Xiong Bo then met the country’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh hours before the US Vice-President travelled to Vietnam, securing a pledge that Hanoi would “not ally with any country to counter other great powers”.
During a meeting with Chinh on Wednesday, Harris promised to send a million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine following an appeal by Vietnam to the World Health Organization for more vaccines as it battles its worst Covid-19 outbreak in months. The country has so far inoculated just 3 per cent of its population.
China also reached out to other Southeast Asian countries during the tour, with deputy minister of commerce Wang Shouwen saying Beijing wanted to upgrade its free-trade agreement with Singapore and “is positively considering joining the CPTPP” — the Pacific mega-FTA formed after the US quit a similar deal in 2017.
The Philippine government also said on Thursday that China was considering offering funds for four infrastructure projects worth nearly US$2 billion — just days after a visit by US Indo-Pacific Command chief John Aquilino in which he highlighted the American military alliance with Manila.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asia affairs specialist at Jinan University in Guangdong province, said the timing of Chinh’s meeting with Xiong and the emphasis China placed on the pledge to avoid alliances against great powers showed that “Hanoi is increasingly skilful in carrying out its hedging strategy to offset possible setbacks to Vietnam’s relations with China”.
But Zhang said the US offer of support to Vietnam could be “icing on the cake” for relations between the two countries while weakening China’s diplomatic efforts in the region.
“Even if China could offer the same kind of benefits to Vietnam, it could hardly achieve the same kind of result in strengthening bilateral relations,” Zhang said.
Le said that while Vietnam was trying to maintain a balance between the US and China, its territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea have drawn it closer to Washington over the past decade “albeit at a rather slow pace”.
The US, meanwhile, appeared to be allowing relations to develop gradually.
“This is the right approach because US-China strategic competition will be a long game that lasts decades, and the US should think about its relationship with Vietnam from a long-term perspective,” he said.
“However, the key point is that changes are already under way, and if the US is patient and continues to invest in its ties with Vietnam, it may get what it wants at some point in the future.”
Courtesy – SCMP