Biden’s Half-Hearted Policy Towards Southeast Asia

Washington has stepped up its game in the region but is constrained by its unwillingness to do trade deals.

Even though Southeast Asia is a strategic region in the emerging U.S.-China standoff, the Biden administration’s policy toward it in 2021 left much to be desired. During its first year in office, the Biden team lacked a strategy for the region, was short on ambassadors, and paid little attention to cultivating top-level ties. But in 2022, the administration stepped up its game in the region by showing up in person, clarifying its approach in key strategy documents, and boosting cooperation through initiatives such as the elevated Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But heavy lifting remains: The administration still has no viable economic strategy, its emphasis on containing China threatens to alienate key countries in the region, and prioritizing a values-based foreign policy is a non-starter in a region of mostly authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states.

One crucial improvement in 2022 was that the administration made a point of actually showing up. Especially after two years of only virtual engagement due to the pandemic, high-level, face-to-face meetings are a prerequisite for success on issues and policies. Last November, U.S. President Joe Biden personally attended three critical multilaterals: the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summits in Cambodia, as well as the G-20 summit in Indonesia. Although Biden did not participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand—he was at his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House instead—he sent Vice President Kamala Harris to attend in his stead. Other high-level visits included U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trips to Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s travels to Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore; and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to Laos, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

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