“Diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power,” wrote then-U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden in a Foreign Affairs essay in early 2020 on restoring foreign policy after Trump.
Southeast Asians are waiting, increasingly impatiently, for Biden to demonstrate that.
When Biden won the U.S. election, many in the region were optimistic. Biden promised a return to conventional diplomacy, a responsible America, and a level of predictability in a volatile time. From the start, the new administration signaled its commitment to multilateralism and diplomacy. It engaged rapidly and enthusiastically with the Quad, even when China predictably threw tantrums in response. There have been a slew of meetings with the big powers and important groups: the G-7, NATO, and the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and Russia.
But close to six months into the new administration, the smaller powers of Southeast Asia hardly figure on Biden’s diplomatic agenda. But this region is not only critical to dealing with China; its regional architecture is more elaborate than virtually any other area on Earth. Yet only 3 4 out of 10 Southeast Asian states were invited to the Biden-hosted virtual climate summit. There has not been a single meeting between the White House and any of the Southeast Asian heads of state. The recent attempt by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet virtually with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was hijacked by a technical glitch. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made a brief visit to Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia in a combined tour to Brussels, Ankara, and Honolulu. Meanwhile, China has carried on with in-person diplomacy throughout the pandemic and most recently hosted the ASEAN foreign meeting in Chongqing. The cancellation of two Shangri La Dialogues in a row thanks to the pandemic has also reduced significant opportunity for the U.S. appearance in the region.
If things aren’t reversed quickly, Biden will reinforce the perception of the United States as an uncommitted power. America’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, started under former President Donald Trump and seemingly being continued under Biden, has had a mixed reception in Southeast Asia. The worry of being sidelined or overlooked by the United States in its preoccupation with China and newfound zeal for India has been strong among Southeast Asians. Indonesia, for example, the region’s biggest country, reiterates at every possible occasion that Trump never visited in all his four years.
Diplomacy, meanwhile, is a void. The U.S. ambassador to Jakarta, Sung Kim, has been named a special envoy to North Korea. Singapore, arguably the most important security partner for the United States in the region, has not had an ambassador in more than four years. Similarly, the ambassadorships in both of America’s treaty allies in the region, Thailand and the Philippines, remain vacant. No envoy has been appointed to ASEAN or to this year’s ASEAN chair, Brunei, either. The United States is missing in diplomatic action in many corners of the region, and it’s hard to convince locals that its talk of supporting “ASEAN centrality” is genuine.
Southeast Asia’s elites increasingly voice that the ball is now in Biden’s court. If not addressed soon, the Biden administration is risking the region’s initial optimism sliding into resentment caused by neglect.
There are immediate fixes that the United States under Biden can make to prove its commitment to diplomacy and indeed that it takes “ASEAN centrality,” a new buzzword used in the administration’s official speeches and policy documents, seriously. These go beyond just filling long-absent diplomatic posts.
One critical area of engagement, as well as a complicating factor, is the Myanmar crisis. After the coup in February, the United States was quick to impose sanctions and has continued to disengage. While Biden indicated that he would attend the year-end East Asia Summit, there could be potential challenges to keeping that promise, from COVID-19 restrictions to Biden’s own value-centered foreign policy. ASEAN is struggling with the Myanmar crisis and has fallen back on its traditional mode of inclusive diplomacy. ASEAN leaders invited coup leader and junta head Min Aung Hlaing to a special meeting in April hoping that dialogue could start the mediation process. It is unclear whether the invitation will be extended for future ASEAN meetings, including the year-end summits. But judging from the recent ASEAN meetings (the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and MM Plus, where U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was virtually present), chances are that the Tatmadaw will be present again—posing difficulties for Biden.
But rather than waiting for ASEAN to host a meeting, the United States should proactively engage with the region, for example by setting up a special summit—a channel ASEAN uses with its dialogue partners. As the host, Biden could have a better leverage in excluding Min Aung Hlaing from the invitees but still engage with the legitimate ASEAN leaders. ASEAN certainly wouldn’t want regional processes and external partnerships to become casualties of Myanmar’s crisis.
There have been some positive developments to build on. In meetings that Biden has had with other world leaders, Southeast Asian nations have figured prominently, whether benefiting from pledges for vaccine donations or infrastructure and energy investments. A U.S.-hosted meeting would serve as a platform for directly communicating these developments and build rapport with the leaders of the region.
The Biden administration can still harness the enthusiasm for a switch away from Trump’s failed policies in the region—if it acts soon. A special summit would be a good opportunity to draw a distinguishing line from Trump’s legacy. The last attempt by the United States to engage with the region was in March 2020, when a special summit in Las Vegas for the ASEAN leaders was planned, but the pandemic prevented it from happening. It is time for Biden to host the ASEAN leaders in the United States despite the pandemic-induced logistical challenges. A summit alone would hardly be a panacea, and it is possible that even those invited might not show. (Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly declined the Las Vegas invitation last year, too.) But it would give Southeast Asia much-needed reassurance.