90 percent of success comes from just showing up – at least that’s what they say about the US engagement in Southeast Asia. It is not known who said this first. The adage has been attributed by some to Derek Mitchell, Myanmar’s former ambassador, and by others to Hillary Clinton. During a House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific in 2017, Congressman Ted Yoho put it a little differently: âOn the diplomatic front in Southeast Asia, 80% of successes are there â. Whether 80% or 90%, and despite the fact that this line was borrowed from comedian Woody Allen, who thought so jokingly, it has now stuck. But how many times has this garbage been repeated by serious people that it now becomes something close to conventional wisdom? Notice, this is not only condescending but solipsistic.
He postulates, quite explicitly, that the leaders of Southeast Asia should be lucky to have received a visit from a big Washington dancer. And, implicitly, that assumes that the best form of diplomacy is exercised by the same bigwigs, who arrive in a Southeast Asian capital for a day or two, ideally read the briefs prepared for them, and hopefully. , will charm their host dignitary with promises of security commitments. and economic investments.
The problems are obvious. For starters, the pomp of a visiting Washington greats fades. We are not at the time before 2011 (before the âpivotâ) when the region was seen as a sort of dead end for American power and, in particular under the George W. Bush administration, where it did not. ‘received almost no visits from senior US politicians. . Today, the people of Southeast Asia themselves (and especially their leaders) are much more interested in what the visiting American dignitary has to say, rather than being simply astonished by their mere presence. on the same stage. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s last visit to Indonesia in early December was notable only for its wording, which seemed to suggest that the United States would treat the Southeast Asian states as they are, not based on their position on the US-Chinese influence spectrum. Yet his speech in Jakarta was criticized by some analysts for containing no new promises or guarantees.
The other problem is “who” presents itself? It is not wrong that RAND’s Derek Grossman, in his recent “year-end report” for the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, listed the senior officials who introduced himself last year: “Vice President Kamala Harris (Singapore and Vietnam), Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (Singapore, Philippines and Vietnam), Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand), new Secretary of Deputy State for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Indonesia and Malaysia).
This could be seen as a positive, especially compared to the later years of the Trump administration, when Southeast Asia saw few visits from senior officials. The nadir came to the 2019 ASEAN summit when the Trump administration dispatched the humble national security adviser Robert O’Brien, a snub that led several Southeast Asian leaders to boycott the US summit. -ASEAN neighbor.
Even then, however, visits by greats from the State and Defense departments in 2021 did not make up for the fact that Biden didn’t bother to phone a Southeast Asian leader. âSoutheast Asian interlocutors don’t know why they can’t even get a phone call,â Grossman wrote in his aforementioned article. Compare that to Trump’s first year, when even before his inauguration he spoke to then Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He also met Phuc and the Prime Minister of Thailand, Prayut Chan-o-cha, that year. COVID-19 may be an excuse for Biden not to meet a Southeast Asian leader in person, but that doesn’t explain why he hasn’t even picked up the phone. Perhaps we’ll see some progress this year, although things calmed down at a special US-ASEAN summit that Biden proposed in November and was due to be held this month.
But the âjust show upâ theory assumes that diplomacy is best performed by the highest ranking civil servant, and not by those whose real job is diplomacy: ambassadors. According to the most recent update from the American Foreign Service Association, there is currently no US ambassador to the Philippines, Thailand, or Timor-Leste. (Thailand and the Philippines are the two allies of the United States in the region.) Ambassadorial appointments to Vietnam (Marc Knapper), Singapore (Jonathan Eric Kaplan) and Brunei (Caryn McClelland) have not been confirmed only in December or November, and therefore have not yet officially arrived in the country. In addition, there is still no ambassador to the ASEAN bloc.
If the Biden administration is truly committed not to talk about China, as its interlocutors have said, it would do well to quickly insert a new ambassador to ASEAN, a role that should ignore China’s domestic politics. each of the 10 members and focus only on their collective needs. And the Chinese question would be further diluted if the ASEAN ambassador, whoever he was, had real influence.
Currently, the longest-serving US ambassadors in the region are W. Patrick Murphy (in Cambodia since mid-2019) and Peter M. Haymond (in Laos since late 2019). This cannot be lost for the larger countries in the region, and arguably more important globally. Sung Kim has only been in Indonesia since 2020. Much of this can be blamed on the Trump administration, which has been pathologically slow in appointing ambassadors. More blame can be put on Republicans in the Senate last year. Senator Ted Cruz has suspended ambassadorial appointments for much of 2021 in an effort to pressure a debate over Nordstream 2, a Russia-Germany gas pipeline.
If you want a bit of positivity, Marc Knapper, the new ambassador to Vietnam, appears to be a good choice. And we imagine that he will work well with Dan Kritenbrinck, now Deputy Secretary of the State Department for East Asia and the Pacific, former Ambassador to Vietnam.