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Biden Comes Face-To-Face With Southeast Asian Diplomacy – Analysis

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By Hoang Vu and Thuc D Pham*

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic restricting international travel, US diplomacy has shifted from conventional face-to-face interaction to virtual or hybrid settings. Yet non-traditional diplomacy is no substitute for in-person engagement — it lacks the intrinsic value that face-to-face diplomacy holds.

Face-to-face diplomacy facilitates interpersonal bonding between state leaders, allowing trust to be built between nations. More importantly, it creates a chance for leaders to take stock of the other side and devise their own strategies. They may use such opportunities to signal peaceful intent, reduce suspicion and dampen the security dilemma, helping otherwise hostile states to develop relations.

Thanks to the US government’s swift vaccine production and vaccination drive, Washington’s high-level face-to-face diplomacy is gradually getting back to normal. After his first six months in office, US President Joe Biden has pro-actively engaged with Washington’s allies, partners and strategic competitors. He has done this through the NATO conference, G7 summit, US–Russia summit, APEC and the upcoming G20 summit to be held in October 2021.

Biden’s high-level diplomacy carries some important elements.

First, the Biden administration wants to re-build trust with US allies and competitors. Biden believes that ‘in international relations, all politics is personal because it’s all ultimately based on trust’ and ‘personal relationships are the only vehicle by which you build trust’.

Second, Biden seeks to facilitate a convergence of interests with other nations rather than egoistically pursuing US self-interest. He prefers frank interlocution to flesh out his counterparts’ interests, concerns and expectations, so that both sides can easily find common ground to overcome differences and cooperate for mutual benefit.

Third, the Biden administration has arranged diplomatic activities with a professionalism unthought of during the Trump administration. The logic is to reassert US leadership on the world stage through amending ties with allies and partners, and by placing pressure on competitors through dialogue — with US allies and partners at his back.

Biden seeks to strengthen an international coalition of like-minded major countries, reassuring allies that they will always have the support of the United States. Biden has also conveyed a clear message to Washington’s strategic competitors — namely China and Russia — that the United States will compete, collaborate and confront to maintain adherence to the rules-based liberal international order.

At the same time, Biden has ‘acted from the heart’ by conducting parallel diplomatic efforts with geopolitical competitors such as Russia. In June, he discussed strategic stability with Russian President Vladimir Putin by giving him an equal footing, describing the United States and Russia as ‘two great powers’.

Indeed, Biden’s high-level diplomacy seems to be producing some initial results. Washington seems to understand more about its strategic competitors and its international image is improving. A recent Pew Research survey showed that favourable views of the United States had increased from 34 per cent at the end of the Trump presidency to 62 per cent five months into the Biden Administration.

High-level face-to-face diplomacy also matters in Southeast Asia, where showing up is half the game. In-person meetings demonstrate even greater commitment than those conducted online. This is particularly important as Southeast Asia advances ASEAN’s relevance, the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific and its relative autonomy amid major-power strategic competition.

China’s regional magnetism has increased since it deployed a recent charm offensive in Southeast Asia. While some countries have already taken sides in the ongoing strategic and economic competition between the United States and China, others are wavering as their confidence in the United States is shaken.

Against this backdrop, the Biden administration should maintain a stable high-level diplomatic commitment to Southeast Asia. This should centre on face-to-face interaction to reassure regional leaders about the rules-based regional order without forcing them to choose sides between China and the United States. The administration should also appoint sufficient US ambassadors to the region to boost relations with individual countries as well as ASEAN.

Biden should also swiftly hold phone talks with Southeast Asian leaders, attend ASEAN Summits virtually this year, and follow up with in-person talks in the coming years. This should be accompanied with pledges to meet urgent regional demands for high standard infrastructure, investment, innovative technology and vaccine supply. Vaccine diplomacy — without strings attached — is a very timely and effective way for Washington to regain hearts and minds in Southeast Asia.

In turn, Southeast Asian countries should increase their attractiveness to the United States, boost their strength both individually and collectively, upgrade their decision-making mechanism through ASEAN and explore issues of mutual strategic interest with the Biden administration.

*About the authors”

  • Hoang Vu is a PhD and senior researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
  • Thuc D Pham is a PhD candidate and senior researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum. The opinions in the article are the authors’ own.

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East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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