Sui Generis

US shows up in Southeast Asia

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
US shows up in Southeast Asia

FIRST MEETING. President Rodrigo Duterte does a fist bump with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III during a courtesy call on the President at the Malacañang Palace on July 29, 2021.

Malacañang

What does the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines mean for the region?

“After US snubs Southeast Asia for so long, what is Austin’s trip really up to?”

This was the title of an opinion piece in the Global Times, said to be the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, on US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent visit to our part of the world. Snub, of course, is a strong word, denoting something willful.

To my surprise, even the New York Times used the word. It reported that “several Southeast Asian analysts viewed Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s decision to visit Japan, India and South Korea, but not Southeast Asia, as a snub.”

The fact is: Austin is the first member of the Biden Cabinet to travel to Southeast Asia. However, it took about six months for a ranking US government official to show up in a region that the Biden administration has regarded as important, a potential flashpoint in its relations with China.

This delay in US attention has been a theme in some commentaries. “Biden puts Southeast Asia in U.S. sights – at last,” sighed a commentary in The Japan Times, welcoming Austin’s visit. We could almost hear the sound of relief, a big exhale.

think tank in Australia wrote in early July that “Biden must change the narrative of neglect for Southeast Asia.” Many in the region had been waiting for the Biden administration to demonstrate its diplomacy in person, Huong Le Thu of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote.

Analysts cited three instances that apparently show Southeast Asia to be at the margins of the US’ Asia policy:

  • Biden hasn’t spoken to a single Southeast Asian head of state by phone.
  • Blinken’s scheduled virtual meeting with ASEAN counterparts in May was canceled because of technical problems.
  • In ASEAN, particularly treaty allies Philippines and Thailand, the post of US ambassador remains vacant.
Austin comes to town

To some extent, the visit of Austin to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines changes the narrative of benign neglect, showing US support for its allies amid maritime disputes over South China Sea.

“We don’t believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules or, worse yet, throw them over the transom,” Lloyd said before his visit. “And in this regard, I’ll emphasize our commitment to the freedom – to freedom of the seas. I’ll also make clear where we stand on some unhelpful and unfounded claims by China in the South China Sea.”

These three countries were chosen out of the 10 in ASEAN because of their strategic value. According to Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Singapore is the most significant security partner of the US in Southeast Asia: “The US doesn’t have a security treaty with Singapore, but it has an access agreement and an enhanced defence cooperation agreement. Singapore provides significant naval access as well as access for air assets doing training.”

Vietnam, for its part, is “increasingly most closely aligned on competition with China and the Philippines, the oldest Asian ally, [is] where [US] access is under serious threat.”

Well, US military access to the Philippines is no longer uncertain: President Duterte gave the greenlight to keep the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) after threatening to scrap it. The VFA sets the rules for more than 300 annual joint exercises with the US, the biggest of which is the Balikatan.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced Duterte’s decision during a press conference with Austin. You can read the transcript here.

Vaccines for VFA

When asked what led to Duterte’s decision, Lorenzana said he was not aware of the reasons behind it. Last year, however, Duterte already made his condition clear in one of his rants against the US: “…no vaccine, no stay here.”

Last month, before Austin’s visit, the US donated 3.2 million doses of J & J vaccines. This was followed last week by 3 million doses of Moderna.

The US donated vaccines not only to the Philippines. We are one of several countries in Asia to have received US-manufactured vaccines. Vietnam, one of the countries visited by Austin, also got 3 million doses of Moderna last week of July, the second batch in a delivery of 5 million.

Global vaccine donations were in Biden’s plan months into his presidency, part of his administration’s break from Trump’s “America First” and a step in the US’ return to its position as leader of the democratic world. The interests of the Philippines and the US converged here as Duterte admitted that these donations made him keep the VFA.

It must have already dawned on Duterte that his great friend, China, gave us only 1 million doses of Sinovac, definitely a far cry from the 6.2 million doses America handed.

For the US, however, there’s another part of its democracy agenda that it has yet to fulfill: calling out Duterte for the violations of human rights under his regime – and applying pressure and sanctions.

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.