The Latest on Southeast Asia

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

From CSIS Analysis

Media –  The first week of June included the administration’s two most visible diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia to-date. On June 3, President Joe Biden laid out plans to share 25 million Covid-19 vaccine doses with international partners in the coming weeks, including at least 7 million for South and Southeast Asia through COVAX. That is likely just the start, as the president reiterated the White House’s commitment to send a total of 80 million doses abroad by the end of the month.

If followed through, this will help overcome the growing skepticism in the region about U.S. promises to lead on global vaccine distribution. That skepticism has been driven in large part by the perceived “hoarding” of doses to vaccinate Americans first. Anxieties have also grown regarding the vaccine distribution scheme announced at the Quad leader’s meeting in March and the overall timeline for COVAX deliveries. Both have been hampered by India’s need to turn its attention, and much of its vaccine manufacturing capacity, toward combatting the devastating Covid-19 outbreak at home.

As President Biden announced the administration’s vaccine distribution plans, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was in the middle of the administration’s first high-level trip to Southeast Asia. From June 1 to 3, she visited Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia before stopping in Honolulu for discussions with Indo-Pacific Command. Vaccine distribution and pandemic response was a major focus in all three countries. But the chosen stops also highlighted some of the administration’s other top regional priorities.

U.S.-Cambodia relations have badly deteriorated amid the Hun Sen regime’s years-long move into authoritarianism, and its reliance on and support for China in most things. Sherman expressed concern over the demolition of U.S. funded buildings at Ream Naval Base and the rapid construction of what appear to be Chinese-built facilities in their place, finished just days before she landed. Cambodian officials vehemently denied that China will receive special access to the base, despite persistent reports to that effect since 2019. Sherman also urged the government to drop all charges against political opposition figures, including Kem Sokha, whom she met while in Phnom Penh. Despite the obvious points of tension, Sherman’s meetings were cordial, with both sides signaling that they hoped the visit would be the start of a turn toward more positive relations.

In each of her three stops in the region, Sherman urged “immediate action to end the humanitarian crisis in Burma and underscored the need to push the military regime to end violence, release those unjustly detained, and restore Burma to its path to democracy.” This started in Cambodia, which will ascend to the ASEAN chairmanship in 2022 with the unenviable task of leading ASEAN’s response to the crisis. Sherman encouraged Hun Sen’s government to use its chairmanship to implement ASEAN’s stalled “five point consensus” to try and mediate an end to the violence in Myanmar. That continued later in the day when she landed in Thailand, which is Myanmar’s next door neighbor and has the closest ties to its ruling junta. In addition to highlighting the depth of U.S.-Thai security cooperation and expanding economic ties, Sherman urged the government to do more in Myanmar. She told reporters in Bangkok that ASEAN needs to talk to “all democratic parties,” referring to Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government which has been excluded from ASEAN’s engagements on Myanmar.

During her stop in Indonesia, Sherman found more common ground, including on Myanmar. Indonesian officials seem increasingly frustrated with their regional counterparts, particularly in Thailand and current ASEAN Chair Brunei, which are seen as overly deferential to the junta and unwilling to push hard for implementation of the ASEAN five-point consensus. Sherman met with Deputy Foreign Minister and former ambassador to the United States Mahendra Siregar. The two touted their countries’ shared values and emphasized the importance of maintaining a free, transparent, and open Indo-Pacific. Mahendra said Indonesia welcomes the United States’ active role in the Indo-Pacific, while Sherman described Indonesia as a leader within ASEAN and “an anchor of the rules based order in the Indo-Pacific.”

For updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the pandemic, visit our online Tracker.

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