On August 22-26, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam with the so-called aim of strengthening economic cooperation between nations.¹ These state appointments are nothing but doubletalk hiding behind diplomacy. Testament to this is the fact that lopsided trade deals, aid conditionalities, and military interventions are usually preceded by these visits. After former President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), incumbent President Joe Biden makes it clear with his pronouncements that America now intends to strengthen its ties with Asian countries.² These proclamations and these visits can only mean one thing: the region will once again serve as the stage for the unfolding rivalries between and among hegemons.
Why Southeast Asia?
The region is composed of weak democracies rich in natural resources and cheap labor. But more than the economies, markets, and governments which the U.S. has already penetrated, it also seeks to secure one of the major points of interest – the Straits of Malacca.³ This waterway attracts the attention of hegemons due to the fact that “a quarter of the world’s trade, half the world’s oil, and two-thirds of its natural gas trade pass through its waters.”⁴ Japan and China share this desire to secure the said waterway since 70% of Japan’s oil and 80% of China’s trade passes through the Straits. Certainly, any country that controls the Malacca Straits, controls not just their rivals’ economy, but also the world’s.³
Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam. Two Southeast Asian countries that provide strategic access points to the world’s most important waterway. The U.S., for the past three decades, enjoys access to Singapore’s military bases due to a longstanding defense partnership.⁵ President Biden is also looking to close-out the digital trade deal with Indo-Pacific countries. This agreement proves significant since it could dictate the possibility of a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that could compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.⁶ Moreover, there is a budding trade relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, a country which has been proactive in its anti-Chinese intervention stance. Last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also visited the two Southeast Asian countries with the addition of the Philippines wherein he secured key military deals and ensured the longevity of the unconstitutional Visiting Forces Agreement.⁷ In any case, it is clear that the United States is reinstating its claim in its interests in Asia by establishing rapport with countries that offer strategic gains. It seeks to disarm China and other rivals of their trade routes while securing access for their own.
What does this mean for the people?
Given the strategic importance of Southeast Asia as a region of growing economies, adjacency to supply routes, and a possible launchpad to access greater Asia, it will prove to be a highly contested arena. No hegemony will purposely give up the region. Hence, increased military deployment in the region underlines the economic ties and trade deals pursued between key global governments and underdeveloped nations.
The United Kingdom used China’s aggressive position in the South China Sea to justify the deployment of the British Royal Navy in Asia.⁸ The same excuse can be used by the United States to send their military forces to the region. Their gimmick to use “peace and security” as pretense for their intervention is played out – the people can see right through it. This is nothing but a ruse to maintain their geopolitical interest and reposition their military might in the region; especially after the US’ failure and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
With the increase in military deployment, joint-military exercises, and naval fleets in the region, tensions undeniably heighten. Just this July 1, during the centennial anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “[a]anyone who dares to try [to bully China], will find their heads bashed bloody against a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” ⁹
Due to growing pressures from within and without, people across Asia are experiencing great amounts of uncertainty and unrest. Even Southeast Asian countries themselves are steadily increasing their military expenditures in anticipation of seemingly inevitable hostility. Funding that could have gone to public health systems and cash aid to their constituents are being funneled into their country’s respective defense budget; further hampering the ability of the Global South to respond to the pandemic. But the more ostensible multipolarity-induced nightmare can be seen in the free trade policies and the neoliberal structural adjustments that are imposed on underdeveloped countries by the Global North. Under these lopsided programs, social services are privatized, natural resources are siphoned, domestic markets are deregulated, complete foreign ownership of assets is allowed, and any semblance of democracy crumbles to dust. Governments lose all leverage to refuse these one-sided policies since it would forfeit them from receiving loans and cash assistance from International Financial Institutions like the WTO.
What should be done? First and foremost, we must remain committed to our anti-war stance. Any aggression, posturing, encroachment, or hostility between military forces of Imperialists must be met with uncompromising condemnation from the people. This entails strict opposition against joint-military exercises within our region and the relentless struggle to expel all military bases in the underdeveloped world. The mere presence of foreign bases on our countries attracts unwanted attention should the situation escalate. In addition to militant collective action, we must also campaign for the respect and recognition of our national patrimony and sovereignty as autonomous nation-states. In the face of such organized repression, our hope lies in our ability to get organized as well. The underdeveloped world must build and maintain solidarity amongst ourselves to defend what little liberties we have left.
- Lee, Yen Nee. “Kamala Harris Is Set to Visit Southeast Asia as U.S.-China Tensions Rise. Here’s What to Expect.” CNBC, 20 Aug. 2021, www.cnbc.com/2021/08/20/vp-kamala-harris-to-visit-singapore-vietnam-amid-us-china-tensions.html. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- “Trump Pulls US out of Pacific Trade Deal, Loosening Asia Ties.” CNBC, 23 Jan. 2017, www.cnbc.com/2017/01/23/trump-pulls-us-out-of-pacific-trade-deal-loosening-asia-ties.html. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- Tan, Andrew T H. Security Strategies in the Asia-Pacific : The United States’ “Second Front” in Southeast Asia. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. “Chilly Response to U.S. Plan to Deploy Forces in the Strait of Malacca.” Www.iags.org, 24 May 2004, www.iags.org/n0524042.htm. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- Sim, Dewey. “Singapore Renews US Military Base Pact as Defence Ties with China Deepen.” South China Morning Post, 24 Sept. 2019, www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3030111/china-will-be-wary-us-singapore-deal-military-bases.
- Bloomberg. “Biden’s Digital Trade Deal Could See US Rejoin Asia-Pacific Pact Trump Ditched.” South China Morning Post, 23 July 2021, www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3142176/joe-bidens-digital-trade-deal-could-see-us-rejoin-asia. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. “U.S. Secretary of Defense Welcomes Recall of VFA Abrogation, Reinforces Strong U.S.-Philippine Alliance during Manila Visit.” U.S. Embassy in the Philippines, 31 July 2021, ph.usembassy.gov/us-secretary-of-defense-welcomes-recall-of-vfa-abrogation-reinforces-strong-us-philippine-alliance-during-manila-visit/. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- Lendon, Brad. “UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier Pictured in South China Sea.” CNN, 30 July 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/07/30/asia/south-china-sea-military-activity-hms-queen-elizabeth-intl-hnk-ml/index.html. Accessed 28 Aug. 2021.
- Crawshaw, David. “‘Heads Bashed Bloody’: China’s Xi Marks Communist Party Centenary with Strong Words for Adversaries.” Washington Post, 1 July 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/china-party-heads-bashed-xi/2021/07/01/277c8f0c-da3f-11eb-8c87-ad6f27918c78_story.html.