Opinion – Biden’s second year could be worse

For the Asia region, it is better to look ahead to the second year of the Biden administration. A review of the past 12 months is unlikely to bring cheer to any particular country, except those who are military allies of the US and anxious about China’s rise. That seems to be the most tangible input President Joe Biden has brought to the Indo-Pacific.

It is clear that the domestic situation inside the US will not improve soon, given the myriad issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic recovery exacerbated by the surge in inflation. Most importantly, US society remains deeply divided, which is actually worsening under Biden because he has been unable to push through key legislation due to opposition from Republican lawmakers and his own party. These conundrums will continue throughout this year and possibly deepen once the outcome of the mid-term elections is known.

All the political pundits in the US have already concluded that the Republicans will claim back their majority in Congress and the Senate. If that is the trajectory, the Asia region, which has been given a big boost by Biden’s more comprehensive approaches, has to be ready for unexpected changes. After all, it is a truism in the American political domain that no policy is permanent and subject to change, depending on who wins the election. That helps to explain why the countries in Southeast Asia do not manifest the kind of commitment the US has often sought.

To be fair, the US has caught up with vaccine donations to the rest of the world. Southeast Asia is also a beneficiary of these vaccine rollouts. More should be forthcoming. Millions of doses of high-quality vaccines in the US have been wasted because they could not be used in time. Transportation costs, storage facilities and capacities have added to the obstacles for some recipients.

Economically, the US is still a country of verbal commitments. To really show that the US means business, it must put the money where its mouth is. Southeast Asia has been critical to the overall US global strategy since the end of World War II and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Without a new kind of long-term investment, the US economic presence will be submerged by new investors both from the region and afar. Fortunately, at this moment, America’s friends, such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, are helping the US in this regard.

Moreover, Biden has yet to fill key diplomatic posts in the region. Recently, the State Department has announced Marc Knapper as the new ambassador to Vietnam. In the statement issued by the Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific, Vietnam was identified as “strong, underspent and prosperous”. That helps explain why the US appointed the new ambassador after an eight-month vacancy. Washington has clearly shown its partiality towards this nation. The urgency accorded to Vietnam was completely absent in Thailand, a former ally, where the new envoy has yet to be announced. Former US ambassador, Michael de Sombre, ended his tenure on 20th January 2021.

As far as ASEAN is concerned, the US policy towards the bloc is still wanting. More than five years have elapsed and no ASEAN envoy has yet been named, even though the US was the first dialogue country to name its envoy to the ASEAN Secretariat back in 2010. The planned ASEAN-US summit has yet to be agreed and the longer it takes, the lower the chances of the White House playing host to the meeting.

Furthermore, with so much trouble back home, it is questionable if Biden will be able to travel to the region to attend the important summits, ASEAN, G20 and the Asia Pacific Leaders’ Meeting, all being held in the region in November. That will serve as a barometer of whether the US is really serious about the region.

If Biden fails to show up, his Indo-Pacific vision and other US-led initiatives will falter, as there is no concrete backup from the top. Inside the region, the leader’s physical presence speaks volumes.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn


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