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After dragging its heels, the Biden administration finally embarks on Southeast Asia charm offensive

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After a relatively slow start, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has embarked on a diplomatic offensive across Southeast Asia, the new theater of great power competition.

Within a matter of weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as well as Vice President Kamala Harris visited key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, specifically Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Against the backdrop of the withdrawal debacle in Afghanistan, the incidental timing of the visits also helped soothe lingering anxieties over American commitment to the region. By and large, the Biden administration seems determined to rally not only like-minded Indo-Pacific powers such as Japan, India and Australia, but also front-line ASEAN states, which share similar anxieties over a resurgent China.

From successfully restoring the all-crucial visiting forces agreement with the Philippines to its burgeoning “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia, Washington has been sending all the right signals to its regional allies and partners. Nevertheless, there is still much to be desired in America’s regional strategy.

The Biden administration has yet to spell out concrete trade and investment initiatives as well as deepen avenues for deeper defense cooperation with Southeast Asian allies and strategic partners. After all, China is in a strong position to leverage its geographic proximity and cultural affinity, as well as expanding its economic footprint to coax and cajole weak links within the ASEAN.

Box ticking

When Biden came to power, there was tremendous amount of optimism over the future of U.S.-ASEAN relations. Key members of the new U.S. administration, including the newly elected president, had played a vital role in ushering an unprecedented era of diplomatic engagement between Washington and Southeast Asian countries under former President Barack Obama.

In its latest annual survey conducted by the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, more than 6 out of 10 respondents, composed of Southeast Asian policymakers and thought leaders, chose the U.S. over China if they........

© The Japan Times

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