Overconfidence prevents US from reaffirming influence in Southeast Asia

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris departs Air Force Two as she arrives at the Paya Lebar base airport in Singapore on Sunday. Photo: AFP

US Vice President Kamala Harris, the most senior official in the Biden administration to visit Southeast Asia, has ended her “ambitious” trip to Singapore and Vietnam. It is now evident that the United States has made Southeast Asia the central area of ​​its competition with China, and that Singapore and Vietnam have become the key targets with which the United States expects to to get closer.

Certainly, Harris’ visit, especially to Vietnam, helps the United States to some extent strengthen its soft power in the region by working with the Vietnamese government on a few small projects.

Unfortunately, the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan seriously affected Washington’s international reputation, and Harris’s trip to Southeast Asia, therefore, did not yield much. The shadow of the Afghan question has made it harder for Harris to accomplish his mission: to establish US credibility and solidify US relations with countries in the region.

Harris chooses Vietnam and Singapore as his destination, showing that the US strategy in Southeast Asia is designed to strengthen the so-called Indo-Pacific regional partnership. It’s about building the Quad Mechanism as a main line and then radiating its influence among other ASEAN members. That’s why Harris’s visit this time focuses more on cooperation on security issues and alleged tensions in the South China Sea to further justify the US presence in the region.

Singapore and Vietnam are keeping a relatively low profile this time around to avoid provoking China. After all, China maintains close ties with both countries. Harris’ visit to Singapore therefore played the same old tune. And with Vietnam, the United States has only token and limited defense cooperation, as increased maritime defense cooperation between the two will irritate other countries around the South China Sea. It also means that maritime defense cooperation between the United States and Vietnam will be limited in the future.

Vietnam was, after all, a socialist country, and the Vietnam War left deep scars on both sides. In this context, attracting Vietnam to its side and promoting “peaceful development” is also one of Washington’s objectives in the region.

Differences in political systems also hamper US ambition in Vietnam. Vietnam wants the United States to put pressure on China on the South China Sea issue. But political mistrust is strong on both sides. The visits of Harris and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Southeast Asia underscored the need to improve US relations with Vietnam. But the White House fact sheet released on Wednesday made no mention of any elevation in US-Vietnam relations from “comprehensive partnership” to “strategic partnership.” This shows that the two sides remain reluctant to improve their relations and that there are dissenting voices within their own countries.

Interestingly, Harris paid tribute to the late Senator John McCain on Wednesday on the third anniversary of his death by visiting a monument in Vietnam where his plane was shot down in 1967 during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese netizens were exasperated by this arrangement. The United States still deals with countries in Southeast Asia with a hegemonic mentality.

The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War was illegal military intervention, and the war has become a painful historical memory for all Vietnamese.

However, American politicians do not seem to care about the feelings of the Vietnamese people. They don’t bother to think about the story. They may even regret their initial withdrawal from Vietnam. It also reflects America’s overconfidence and the belief that it is always in charge of everything. This creates a dilemma for the United States as it seeks to reassert its influence in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. How can the United States convince the people of these countries if they do not know or respect their history?

The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan is reminiscent of the scene of 1975. After injuring the Vietnamese people for nearly 20 years, it is now trying to attract Vietnamese support to contain China. This is, of course, unacceptable to the Vietnamese people.

In any case, it is impossible for the United States to use “bread and circuses” to lure Vietnam and Singapore into a strategic confrontation with China. Even US President Joe Biden visiting Southeast Asia will not change the tendency of Southeast Asian countries to change their previous position by balancing between China and the United States and move towards China. .

The author is director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. [email protected]

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