Vice-President Kamala Harris’s maiden visit to Southeast Asia this month couldn’t have come at a more critical juncture. The Biden administration’s “hard and messy” exit from Afghanistan has not only sapped the prestige of American power, at least for the moment, but also enabled rivals and their proxies to gloatingly question the United States’ commitment to allies across the world.
In a strongly-worded editorial, China’s Global Times declared, “From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the [Taiwan] Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and U.S. military won’t come to help.” A prominent Chinese scholar went so far as to quickly portray the debacle in Afghanistan as a “forecast” of what will happen to major U.S. allies in Asia.
In Southeast Asia, the ultimate theatre of great power competition, pro-Beijing proxies have also tried to exploit the situation by sowing doubts vis-à-vis American reliability as well as rehashing the age-old line of the supposed inevitability of Chinese primacy in the region.
Officially, however, key regional states have emphasized their continued confidence in the United States’ commitment to a free and open order in the region. After all, recent history shows us that America’s ignominious withdrawals from “forever” wars, from South Vietnam to post-Saddam Iraq, haven’t necessarily undermined its commitments elsewhere.
If anything, the Biden administration can and should redouble its efforts at strengthening alliances and strategic partnership across the Indo-Pacific. This is especially important in the context of the South China Sea disputes, where there is still much to be desired in terms of the United States’ defense cooperation with frontline states such as the Philippines, a treaty ally, and Vietnam, a vital strategic partner, against a resurgent China.
Not long ago, the Biden administration came under heavy criticism for another supposed strategic blunder: the perceived snub of Southeast Asian countries. In its opening months, top Biden administration officials seemed singularly committed to fortifying strategic ties with major powers as well as regaining the trust and confidence of European allies.
The Biden administration, however, more than made up for its relatively slow start with a concerted charm-offensive in the third quarter of this year. Blinken’s frank yet cordial, hours-long summit with ASEAN counterparts in mid-July was broadly praised by Southeast Asian diplomats as “very civil” and a demonstration of the United States’ “refreshed commitment” to the region. Then came the back-to-back visits of cabinet-level U.S. officials to the key Southeast Asian states of Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
During their visits to Singapore, both Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vice President Harris emphasized the U.S. commitment to its regional alliances and partnerships, a cooperative “integrated deterrence” approach to preserving a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific, and a more nuanced and coherent pushback against China’s expansionist instincts and “bullying” in the South China Sea.
Amid a new spike in Covid-19 infections in the region, the Biden administration has also doubled-down on its “vaccine diplomacy” in Asia. The two high-level visits to Southeast Asia coincided with the donation of millions of American-made COVID-19 vaccine doses to key ASEAN states. In fact, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the largest recipients of U.S.-made Covid-19 vaccine aid in the world.
The greatest indication of the effectiveness of the Biden administration’s charm offensive is arguably the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which governs large-scale joint military exercises between Philippine and U.S. military forces. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte made the unexpected decision following his cordial meeting with Austin, who deftly navigated fault lines in the Philippine-U.S. alliance in recent years, including disagreements over China and human rights issues.
The vaccine donations seem to have contributed to Duterte’s about-face. As Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana told me, “So the President has said he’s recalled, retracted the [VFA termination] because of the vaccines that [the United States] is giving us.” But as the Philippines’ defense chief admitted, much more was at play: “Personally, playing at the back of my mind, I said it seemed that the President was not serious in terminating the VFA [to begin with]. Otherwise he should have let the 180 days lapse and then it’s done.”
The VFA renewal saga is representative of the major long-term challenge for the Biden administration and its successors: reassuring the Philippines and other frontline Southeast Asian states against a resurgent China, most especially in the realm of maritime security and national defense. Duterte’s Beijing-friendly views are broadly unpopular at home, but his expressed reservations with regard to the United States’ reliability as an ally are more broadly shared among his top generals as well as the Filipino populace.
Even prior to the exit debacle in Afghanistan, authoritative surveys have revealed lingering concerns over the United States’ commitment to come to the rescue of treaty allies such as the Philippines in an event of major contingency in the South China Sea. In a 2017 survey, close to half of Filipinos did not agree to the statement that the United States has been “beneficial to the Philippines” in the context of the maritime disputes.
While a welcome development, the restoration of the VFA alone doesn’t go nearly far enough in consolidating the Biden administration’s plans for an “integrated deterrence” strategy against China’s maritime expansionism. Moving forward, the real challenge for the administration is the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which is pivotal to the development of an optimal joint response to China’s growing presence within Philippine waters and across the disputed South China Sea.
Throughout the years, Duterte has repeatedly hamstrung the ability of both allies to fully operationalize EDCA, which was designed to grant U.S. forces expanded access, including the right to preposition weapons and advanced surveillance systems, across strategic bases such as Basa and Bautista airbases, which are close to disputed land features in the South China Sea. But developments in recent weeks suggest that, after years of stalling out, positive momentum is building.
On the eve of 70th anniversary of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) this year, the two allies agreed to move forward with the implementation of EDCA and to negotiate a bilateral maritime security framework. During the recent visit of Defense Secretary Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to Washington, both sides agreed to press ahead with operationalizing EDCA through the establishment of “infrastructure improvement projects”, resume the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue later this year, and conduct a 2 Plus 2 Ministerial Dialogue early next year, as the Philippines prepares to transition into a new administration.
Clearly, the Philippines has signaled its commitment to upgrading bilateral defense ties following years of strategic uncertainty under Duterte’s watch. During his keynote speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lorenzana proposed major upgrades in the alliance, including greater clarity in terms of the parameters of the MDT and revisions to the guidelines of the defense pact in order to focus on “gray zone” threats in the South China Sea.
The finalization of the pending multi-billion-dollar F16 fighter jet deal between the Pentagon and the Armed Forces of the Philippines would be also crucial to upgrading the alliance as well as the Philippines’ “minimum credible deterrence” capabilities against China.
Overall, there is still huge room for improvement in terms of the United States’ defense and strategic engagement in the Philippines and across Southeast Asia, especially in light of China’s rapidly expanding footprint across the South China Sea. But if Washington and Manila can continue on the trajectory they have set in recent months, they may be able to achieve significant progress in the years ahead.