Forum: Deeper US engagement needed with South-east Asia

South-east Asia saw little United States engagement during the Trump administration, especially with the lack of bilateral summits and absence of high-level US delegates at Asean-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit.

It was thus unsurprising when a survey conducted by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in 10 Asean member states found China leading the US in not only economic influence but also political and strategic influence.

More recently, the US has been showing up. In May, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand.

Last month, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been meeting South-east Asian officials on five consecutive days this week. Vice-President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam this month.

The US has also started playing catch-up in vaccine diplomacy: Thailand received its first batch of 1.5 million doses last Friday, and the US announced it has donated more than 23 million doses to the region as at this week.

What's missing? Timeliness. While the US outreach is generally welcomed in the region, it still took nearly six months for the Biden administration to make its move.

Additionally, based on Mr Austin's speech in Singapore, there are no specific action plans.

Compare this with former US president Barack Obama's achievements in the region: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, joining the East Asia Summit and setting up the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative.

The Biden administration has to do more than merely reiterate partnerships with South-east Asian countries.

Tan Sin Lu