Veep Diplomacy: Managing US Ties in Asia

By Nguyen Quang Dy, Harvard Nieman Fellow and Former Vietnamese Diplomat

In the coming days, US Vice President Kamala Harris will become the most senior Biden administration official to visit Southeast Asia. As former diplomat Nguyễn Quang Dy writes, once again the focus will be on Vietnam and Singapore. It highlights the key question of how the region manages US-China competition.

US Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit Singapore on 22 August and Vietnam on 24 August. This is the first time a sitting vice president of the United States will visit Vietnam, following the successful visit by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in late July. President Joe Biden is expected to participate in the ASEAN and East Asia summits later this year.

Why Vietnam and Singapore? 

In the first six months of his presidency, while continuing to promote the Indo-Pacific vision, the Biden administration focused on other regions. In the next six months, this region is expected to be in the spotlight for high-level visits. But why would Austin and Harris visit Singapore and Vietnam twice within one month without giving due attention to Indonesia and Thailand, two other important allies and partners?

While senior officials can’t go everywhere on one trip, the choices they make on stops and timing are revealing. The Harris trip in late August is expected to highlight the role of Southeast Asia in general, as an essential part of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in pushing back against China, while putting specific weight on the potential of Vietnam and Singapore as key regional strategic partners for the US.

Given its coastline of more than 3000 km, Vietnam is in a good position to check China’s moves into the South China Sea. The naval base at Cam Ranh Bay potentially offers a special strategic position in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Singapore controls the Malacca choke point, which connects the Pacific with the Indian Ocean. In 2019, Singapore also extended the use of its naval and air bases to the US for another 15 years until 2035.

Defence cooperation has become a key pillar of the US-Vietnam relationship, despite potential points of friction. There remains the risk that the growth in strategic ties being hampered by the Biden administration’s emphasis on the values of democracy and human rights and how that plays with the Vietnamese Communist Party government.

As for Singapore, the US recently decided to sell 12 F-35B fighters to Singapore, making it the first ASEAN country to have the new generation fighter on order, on top of the F-15s and F-16s currently in stock. If the US decided to build a new fleet as advocated by the Secretary of the Navy to back up the 7th Fleet and the 5thFleet in the Indo-Pacific, Singapore would be a top option for its home base.

Strategic ties: how far and how fast?

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University, argues time constraints meant the itinerary of Austin’s recent visit reflected the US Defense Department’s view of “the most important allies and partners in the region”. But he warns: “An ASEAN member deciding to associate with the Quad in whatever formula will immediately weaken the ASEAN-led regional architecture.”

The idea of taking US-Vietnam ties to another level with a formal strategic partnership has been around for a few years. Following the Trump-Kim Summit in Hanoi in February 2019, President Trump invited Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington. At the time, I argued that “strategic partnership between Vietnam and the US might be a bridge too far”. I was not sure if the timing was ripe because of Trong’s poor health and the Chinese reaction.

As top diplomats from both sides largely agree, the essence of the strategic game is in the substance of action, not in the labels we use. They would prefer an incremental approach to achieving strategic partnership. As Vietnam has signed formal strategic partnership agreements of various types with 18 countries, including China, Russia, India, Japan, and Australia, it is reasonable for it to have a Strategic Partnership with the US.

Senior analyst at RAND Corporation, Derek Grossman, has suggested this might be one of the takeaways from the Harris visit in late August. Grossman believes Harris could pave the way for Biden to decide on a Strategic Partnership later in the year.

This might come as a surprise to China. Grossman and Paul Orner have argued the assessment in Beijing has been that Vietnam “will not work too closely with the US”. This is reflected in the official line from Hanoi. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang noted in April that Vietnam “does not align with one country against another”. Nonetheless, China is unlikely to disrupt regional peace and stability over any moves to closer US-Vietnam security cooperation.

Washington would be unwise to try to force Hanoi to take sides, until it is ready to make the move itself. The same applies to other Southeast Asian nations. The US should follow a multifaceted strategy of diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation in the region while allowing other ASEAN states to play Vietnam’s hedging and balancing game.

US Secretary of Defense and Singapore Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III meets with Singapore Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen, Singapore - July 27, 2021. Image credit: US Secretary of Defense, Flickr.

The most important job that Austin did in Singapore was to reassure regional allies and partners that the Biden Administration considers them “vital”, while simultaneously reaffirming that Washington would not press ASEAN to take sides in the US-China rivalry.

Washington might prefer to focus visits and energy on Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines because it sees them as easiest to work with, and it might even view ASEAN as “dysfunctional”, but that should not be taken to mean the US could or should ignore ASEAN.

America is the future 

With the “America first” sloganeering of the Trump era behind us, Biden’s “America is back” pledge resonates with countries that felt the cold winds of neglect. We might not see a lot of Biden in person; at 79, he is expected to carefully manage his travel and hand some international missions over to Harris.

But as the US competes with China, it is expected to draw closer to the expectations of regional allies and partners, including ASEAN. Several days after Austin’s visit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said high-level US visits are greatly valued by the region. “The US is investing the bandwidth and resources in the region where it has substantial stakes and interests to protect and advance,” he said. Now, countries are looking for long-term strategic consistency from the US, hoping for “a reliable and predictable US”, which provides a stable anchor for the rules-based international order.

Indeed, there are positive signs. Following an embarrassing communications glitch that prevented Secretary of State Antony Blinken from joining a virtual meeting with ASEAN counterparts on 25 May, he has taken five virtual meetings with ASEAN officials, including two separate meetings on the Lower Mekong sub-region, and the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on 4 August. The US has signaled its commitment to ASEAN centrality and supporting ASEAN’s vision for the Indo-Pacific.

As the world looks to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and faces a range of urgent strategic, economic and environmental challenges, there is an ample agenda for cooperation. Blinken and his counterparts have discussed new challenges including the pandemic, climate change, human resource development, and developments in Myanmar.

Another key issue is the sustainability of the global supply chain. The shortage of semiconductors continues to slow down the electronics and automobile industries.

The White House is reported to be discussing a free trade agreement on digital cooperation with indo-Pacific countries, including Singapore and Vietnam. Both countries, along with other members of ASEAN, are expected to play a more important role in securing supply chains as companies look to diversify the strategic and commercial risks of over-reliance on production in China.

This agenda acknowledges that a critical component of US regional engagement lies in setting out a clear economic strategy for Asia. Kurt Campbell, Biden’s point man on Asia, has long argued that economic and security interests are inextricably linked in Asia, and economic statecraft needs be elevated to the core of US foreign policy.

In other words, it makes little difference how many times US officials say the US is competing with China or pivoting, rebalancing, or shifting its focus to Asia. What matters is what they actually do. Fulfilling Biden’s ambitions in Asia will require not just vision but execution.

Nguyễn Quang Dy is a Hanoi-based writer. He is a former official in the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam 1971, undertook postgraduate studies at the Australian National University (1976-1979), and attended Harvard University as visiting scholar and Nieman Fellow (1992-1993).

Banner image: US Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks Marine Two, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US - June 25, 2021. Credit: The White House, Flickr.