SINGAPORE — American Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III sought to reassure Southeast Asian nations on Tuesday that the US was still invested in the region despite top officials’ months-long absence in a region aggressively courted by China.
“I’ve come to Southeast Asia to deepen America’s bonds with the allies and partners on whom our common security depends,” Mr. Austin said at a lecture in Singapore organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.
Mr. Austin’s trip to Southeast Asia is the first by a U.S. cabinet member since President Biden took office in January.
There is a growing awareness in Washington that China has been cultivating Southeast Asia through visits, loans, and, most recently, coronavirus vaccines.
According to a calculation of figures provided by Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based research firm, China has distributed more than 190 million vaccines in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of which have been sold.
During his lecture, Mr. Austin mentioned that the United States had donated roughly 40 million doses to the region for free and with “no strings attached” in the previous two months.
“Part of the effort here is to let the region know that the US still sees it as very important — that it is not going to lie down and let China roll over the region,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“As a result, it’s really an attempt to catch up after a slow start,” he explained.
Given Mr. Biden’s emphasis on Asia as a linchpin of his foreign policy agenda, American officials have indicated that there will be renewed interest in the region. Analysts predict a flurry of diplomatic efforts in the coming months. Mr. Austin’s trip will also take him to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Several Southeast Asian officials have expressed dissatisfaction with their American counterparts’ lack of face-to-face engagement in recent months, particularly in light of China’s increased diplomatic efforts in the pandemic. (Mr. Austin was supposed to appear at a regional defence meeting in Singapore in June, but organisers had to cancel at the last minute due to an increase in Covid-19 cases in the city-state.)
Several Southeast Asian analysts saw Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s decision to travel to Japan, India, and South Korea but not Southeast Asia as a snub.
“It seemed to reinforce the perception that Southeast Asia has always been given lip service: that this is an important region to the Indo-Pacific, but it is still treated as an afterthought,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies.
In May, Mr. Blinken attempted to hold a videoconference with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. However, due to a technical glitch, the ministers were forced to watch a blank screen for 45 minutes. The meeting had to be rescheduled for earlier this month because it had to be postponed.
For the past decade, Beijing has made a concerted effort to expand its political and economic clout throughout Southeast Asia. China has surpassed the United States as the region’s most important trading partner. Senior officials, including China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, have visited the region at least five times since January 2020.
July 27, 2021, 11:06 a.m. ET
After former President Donald J. Trump vetoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the United States has failed to implement any major economic projects in Southeast Asia. It has also withdrawn from one of the world’s largest trade treaties, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which Southeast Asia has enthusiastically embraced.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, arrived in Indonesia with a planeload of vaccines during his most recent visit to Southeast Asia in January. Under China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, he offered to assist in the construction of a high-speed railway connecting Jakarta, the capital, and the neighbouring city of Bandung.
“They consider Southeast Asia to be an important peripheral region to China, so they have played a long game,” said William Choong, a senior fellow specialising in the Indo-Pacific at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a research centre based in Singapore.
“They’ve also taken their relationship with ASEAN to a new level,” he added.
The Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most strategic waterways, is located in Southeast Asia. The region also includes the South China Sea’s numerous contested reefs and shoals, which are a major source of contention between Beijing and several Southeast Asian countries. China has been accused of military incursions in the region by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Some leaders are attempting a delicate balancing act between China and the US, wary of Beijing’s intentions in the region but mindful of their economic interdependence. Many of them say they can’t afford to take Mr. Biden’s anti-China stance, but they still expect the US to back them up in their disputes with Beijing.
Mr. Austin stated that Washington is not asking countries in the region to choose between the US and China. He stated that the US does not seek confrontation with China, but added, “We want to make sure we deter conflict in every case and every opportunity.”
Going forward, limiting Chinese influence in the region will be a major challenge for American officials, particularly in countries like the Philippines, a treaty ally with which China has made significant progress in recent years.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has rarely criticised China for its expansionism in the South China Sea. During his State of the Nation address on Monday, he referred to himself as a “good friend of President Xi.”
“When the pandemic struck, China was the first country I called for assistance,” Mr. Duterte said. He recalled telling Mr. Xi that the Philippines lacked vaccines and was unable to develop them. Mr. Xi said he responded by sending 1.5 million doses.
“You can’t repay that with money, but I owe you gratitude,” Mr. Duterte said. “You can be certain that I will be your friend. A true friend who will die for you.”
Mr. Duterte implied on Monday that he did not see the US as a reliable partner in defending the Philippines.
Mr. Austin stated on Tuesday that during his upcoming visit, he intends to discuss the extension of the long-standing military treaty between the Philippines and the United States. The agreement, which allows Washington to move troops and equipment in and out of the country, is now in jeopardy.
Mr. Duterte previously sought to terminate the treaty, but reversed his position last year, stating that he would keep it in place. Many analysts interpreted the U-turn as an indication that the Philippine president was concerned about China’s growing military assertiveness.