TCSS Security Commentaries #021

the high-level visit intended to restore America’s alliances and partnerships with Southeast Asian nations. US Vice-President stressed that it is a vital interest of the US to unite with allies and partners in Southeast Asia to protect a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Angelo Brian T. Castro & Thuong Nguyen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

Facebook / Vice President Kamala Harris

America’s Return to the Indo-Pacific

While the United States has made headlines after their departure from and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Vice President Kamal Harris was crossing the Pacific Ocean and landed on Singapore and Vietnam for her two-nation Asian visit. Her first stop was Singapore, where Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long warmly welcomed her. Both leaders have emphasized the “robust” friendly relationship between the United States and Singapore during their joint conference. New areas of cooperation for the two countries were announced. Climate change, cyber security, the economy, and the pandemic were among those given significant attention.

PM Lee expressed his appreciation for the U.S participation in key regional and security groupings such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Cooperation between the two countries was not a recent development as there is the 1990 MOU allows American military access to Singapore’s air and naval bases.

U.S Vice President Harris has then headed to Vietnam to conclude her two-nation Asian tour. Her next and last stop was Vietnam, but the reception was different compared to her Singapore trip. In Vietnam, VP Harris had experienced the increased competition between U.S and China. VP Harris was supposed to announce her 1 million coronavirus vaccine upon her arrival, but her flight was delayed for three hours. During this delay, Beijing has sent its Chinese envoy to Hanoi and had a meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and pledged 2 million coronavirus vaccines to be donated by China to Vietnam. The Vietnamese Prime Minister expressed gratitude for this gesture but stated that Vietnam does not ally with another and fight the other.

As VP Harris finally landed in Vietnam, she met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The American Vice-President declared the need to increase Beijing’s pressure on the disputed South China Sea and the Southeast Asian region. The American vice-president has announced the intention of the U.S government to upgrade the relation of the U.S and Vietnam to a “strategic partnership.” She also added that for the Biden administration, the Indo-Pacific region is a foremost priority of the United States government.

Based on recent months, the United States has scored pledges and agreements from its allies and partner countries within the Indo-Pacific region, especially with the Philippines. The Philippines, under the Duterte administration, has finally renewed the nearly scrapped U.S-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement on July 30, 2021.

It can be remembered that the VFA agreement was on the verged of being discontinued as the Philippine president wanted a foreign policy that is less reliant on the United States. However, the South China Sea tides have changed as the Philippine government found its way back to the United States after the continuous incursion of Chinese vessels to the country’s exclusive economic zone. The renewal of the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States last July is a more concrete expression of stronger ties between the two countries.

Why Singapore and Vietnam?

Vietnam and Singapore are Southeast Asian countries located in an important geopolitical position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, this region has long-time US allies such as the Philippines and essential partners, including Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Through discussions with senior leaders of Vietnam and Singapore, the US wanted to probe the attitude of the ASEAN community in general on US-ASEAN policies under President Joe Biden. Such move is aimed at restoring, consolidating, and further strengthening relationships between the US and ASEAN—arguably the most important link in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

As made clear in the “Interim National Security Strategy Guidance”, Biden’s administration wants to “deepen [its] partnership with India and work with New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam and other members of ASEAN to advance our common goal”.

Furthermore, the visit also has an impact on international relations inside and outside the region, even related to the structure and disposition of forces in the Indo-Pacific region.

Positive Signs in US-Singapore Relations and US-Vietnam Relations

The US and Singapore have an intense economic relationship. The US is the largest foreign direct investor (FDI) in Singapore. In 2004, the two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), deepening the economic cooperation between the two countries. One of the initiatives implemented during this visit was kick off the US-Singapore dialogue on building supply chains.

In terms of defense and security, the US and Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the two militaries under which Singapore allows the US access to its naval and air bases. Singapore also pledged to provide logistical support to US military forces in the region.

The US and Singapore have recently reached security agreements to reaffirm Washington’s presence in the region by deploying P-8 aircraft and combat ships to Singapore. The two sides also agreed to expand cooperation on cybersecurity in finance and the military and promote information exchange on cyber threats.

Although Singapore is not the US’s ally, the country is still one of the US’s most vital security partners in Southeast Asia with extensive trade. Through Singapore, the United States would like to announce its continued support for Singapore in security and defense, continuing its presence in the region.

Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris affirmed that the relationship between Vietnam and the US has made remarkable progress, deepening cooperation. Vice President Kamala Harris stressed that “I believe that this trip marks the next phase of the relationship between the US and Vietnam. We have a very longstanding commitment to this relationship. We will continue to face traditional challenges as well as new challenges. Nevertheless, with these challenges, we will create opportunities for both sides”.

The US is committed to implementing initiatives to help Vietnam transition to a digital economy, supporting the businesses of women and minorities, and agreeing on the importance of dealing with the climate crisis. Besides, it has just opened an office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Southeast Asia, located in Hanoi.

For Vietnam, it always considers the US as one of the most important partners. Therefore, it desires to promote the two countries relations to develop substantively, effectively, and stably in order to build and consolidate trust; create a basis for the two sides to actively exchange, strengthen and improve cooperation efficiency in the coming time, on the principle of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political institutions.

Local experts say Vietnam – US Comprehensive Partnership maintains a positive development momentum thanks to the relationship foundation built and cultivated by the two sides over the past 26 years in all fields at three aspects bilaterally, regionally, and internationally. Especially, two visits by senior US officials at the same time, have demonstrated the excellent development of the Vietnam – US relations.

America’s Pivot 2.0 to Southeast Asia

Inherited from the Obama Administration, the statements of the Biden administration show that Southeast Asia continues to be the focus of the US’s policy in this vast region. America’s cooperation with Southeast Asia will go to the substantive points under Biden.

Vice President Kamala Harris reaffirmed, “the US has a long-term presence in the Indo-Pacific to ensure peace and security, free trade, and freedom of navigation. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and a rules-based international order have brought safety and prosperity to so many countries. It is in our vital interest to unite with our allies and partners in Southeast Asia to defend a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

She also firmly committed that the US partnerships will be based on honesty, openness, maintaining common interests, and not letting Southeast Asian countries choose between the competitions among the major powers in the area. Moreover, she also pledged to expand cooperation in security, global economy, and epidemic response to Southeast Asia.

Indeed, many key officials in the administration of President Joe Biden, such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, have all visited the region in recent months. It can be said that these trips send a positive message of strengthening alliances and partnerships with Southeast Asian countries while promoting the goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The US’s involvement in ASEAN has been going on for more than half a century, so the profound effects in all aspects have not disappeared, and the US has a basis for restoring relations.