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Commentary: Biden’s coming Southeast Asia agenda in focus with Kamala Harris’ Singapore visit

Harris’ visit will be looked at for signs of the US’ evolving approach to Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more widely, say BowerGroupAsia’s James Carouso and Prashanth Parameswaran.

Commentary: Biden’s coming Southeast Asia agenda in focus with Kamala Harris’ Singapore visit

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and United States Vice President Kamala Harris. (Photos: MCI, Reuters)

SINGAPORE: With her visit to Singapore, US vice-president Kamala Harris will be the second member of US president Joe Biden’s Cabinet to visit the country and third to Southeast Asia more broadly in a month.

This recent tempo is significant by US standards and welcomed by the region. Just a couple of months ago, the Biden administration had come under criticism for the slow start in engaging Southeast Asia. 

A technical glitch which hijacked US secretary of state Antony Blinken’s virtual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts in May dominated the headlines, and a pandemic surge in the region resulted in the nixing of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in June, thereby delaying a planned US policy rollout on the defence side led by defence secretary Lloyd Austin.

Since then, the Biden team has gone into overdrive to correct this perception.

Austin’s July make-up trip to the region, including a keynote address at the Fullerton Lecture organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, provided a valuable standalone opportunity to articulate a positive US vision for the region without the US-China comparisons that might have dominated at the SLD.

And earlier this month, Blinken announced several commitments on economic engagement and the Mekong sub-region during his virtual participation in ASEAN meetings and launched the US-Indonesia strategic dialogue with Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi in Washington DC. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfields also visited Bangkok and affirmed the bilateral relationship with Thailand. 
 

KAMALA’S VISIT EXEMPLIFIES PRIORITY ON INDO-PACIFIC AND IMPORTANCE OF SOUTHEAST ASIA

Harris’ visit to Southeast Asia, first publicly announced by her office on Jul 30, has been messaged as exemplifying the priority the Biden team places on the Indo-Pacific.

Though much of her involvement in foreign policy to date has been on other regions such as Europe and Latin America, she has participated alongside Biden in Indo-Pacific engagements such as the first Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad) Summit convened in March, and officials including Blinken have previewed her visit as part of wider US engagement.

Seen from this perspective, Harris’ trip to Singapore presents an opportunity to build on current engagement momentum, boost bilateral ties and begin to knit together a more comprehensive US vision for the region.

Harris’ Singapore visit is meant to demonstrate the Biden team’s commitment to showing up and the importance it places on Southeast Asia generally.

This comes amid concerns in recent few years over aspects of US engagement for a longtime strategic partner like Singapore, including the lack of an appointment of a US ambassador, a post left vacant since January 2017 which Biden has just nominated entrepreneur Jonathan Kaplan for.

The pandemic has also continued to complicate potential US engagements with the region, including the choice of stops and continued questions around when Biden himself will pay his first in-person trip to the region.  
 

Vice-president Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex on Thu July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

SINGAPORE CLOSELY WATCHED FOR SOUTHEAST ASIA’S POST-PANDEMIC RECOVERY

This is just Harris’ second trip abroad and her first to the Indo-Pacific region. Her time in the Singapore leg alone is about as long as the entire duration of her brief trip to Guatemala and Mexico from Jun 7 to 8.

As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Aspen Security Forum on Aug 3, such high-level visits “show that the US is investing the bandwidth and resources in the region, and show that it has substantial stakes and interests there to protect and advance”.

More substantively, the Harris visit reinforces the US-Singapore relationship and leverages it for wider, shared regional objectives.

While the bilateral relationship is significant for Washington in its own right given Singapore’s status as an investment hub and a key market for US defence technology, Singapore also plays a vital role in US regional policy as a host for some US maritime operations and a key regional contributor in areas such as the digital economy.

While Singapore continued to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be among the countries closely watched by the Biden team for a sense of how the Indo-Pacific pivots to a post-pandemic world going into 2022 and beyond.

Current US policy is to prioritise reinvigorating partnerships with key Southeast Asian countries as part of its emerging Indo-Pacific agenda, with the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March mentioning Singapore as being one of two key partners of focus within Southeast Asia (the other is Vietnam, Harris’ other stop).

As such, Kamala’s visit provides an opportunity to reenergise a key relationship last upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2012 under US President Barack Obama.

Officials have indicated that the discussions will include a wide array of issues, including the pandemic, climate change, the digital economy and trade, and regional security. But it will also offer a chance for consultation on broader strategic issues including the US-China tensions which PM Lee has been outspoken about. 

A CHANCE FOR US ARTICULATION OF A COMPREHENSIVE SOUTHEAST ASIA VISION

Finally, Harris’ visit provides an opportunity for a clearer articulation of a comprehensive vision for US-Southeast Asia ties within the context of the Indo-Pacific.

With the advent of a new administration and rising US-China competition, the pressure has been growing on the Biden team to articulate a positive vision for the region.

While individual Cabinet members like Austin and Blinken have begun to lay the foundations in individual realms such as diplomacy and defence, there is a need to knit these together into a single emerging vision. 
 

As vice-president, Harris can begin to lay out some of the key components of the administration’s more comprehensive outlook, highlighting pillars including on security, trade, values and people-to-people ties.

Part of that will be through individual engagements, including remarks during her Singapore stop and meetings with officials touching on issues such as the South China Sea on the security side, or sustainability and digital economy on the economic side which provide opportunities for sectoral agreements to counter the narrative that Washington is out of the economic game in Asia. 

As the first female and first person of colour to hold the second-highest office in the United States, Harris will be an effective messenger on issues such as diversity and gender equality which she has been championing within the administration.

CHALLENGING ISSUES LIE IN THE BACKDROP

To be sure, Harris’ Singapore visit will not be without its challenges. Contextually, she is trying to reinforce the Biden team’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific as a priority theatre at a time when the political fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal raises questions about US foreign policy commitments.

Substantively, rights advocates in Washington will be closely watching how Harris handles the values question, as it applies to bilateral ties and regional issues such as post-coup Myanmar. 
 

Soldiers stand next to military vehicles as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb15, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Optics-wise, there will be speculation and scrutiny about her future political ambitions irrespective of realities as Washington heads into preparations for the 2022 mid-term elections, especially since she has at times been a target of Republican critics since her selection as vice-president during Biden’s presidential campaign just over a year ago.

It is also still early days in the Biden administration’s emerging approach to the Indo-Pacific in general and Southeast Asia more specifically.

Key documents such as the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have yet to be released, and interagency coordination on key aspects of Asia policy such as China is still in the works.

Some of the administration’s priorities that could affect Southeast Asia engagement, in the promotion of values or climate change, are still taking shape ahead of wider developments such as the United Nations climate conference (known as COP26) in Glasgow in November and the virtual Biden Democracy Summit expected in December.

Yet Harris’ role, her personal story, the status of US policy in the region and the timing of her visit to Singapore, all underscore its potential importance.

And its outcomes will be a key data point in the administration’s evolving approach to its key partners, to Southeast Asia as well as to the wider Indo-Pacific region.

James Carouso, a former US diplomat, is a Senior Advisor with BowerGroupAsia, Singapore. Dr Prashanth Parameswaran is a Director with BowerGroupAsia.
 

Source: CNA/sl

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