After meeting the foreign ministers of India, Australia and Japan (who form, along their US counterpart, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or, shortly, The Quad) on October 6 in Tokyo, the US Secretary of State completed a new Asian tour to India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia and Vietnam. A media statement published by the US Department of State stressed that the “United States will continue to stand with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in resisting China’s coercive efforts to establish dominion over the South China Sea”.
The statements made by the US Secretary of State before and during the tour in Asia became the main target of the analysts worldwide regarding the new political and bilateral dialogue, as a regional initiative of the USA.
A less approached angle was that of a series of bilateral visits with an aim to trace a common agreement in the official documents issued by the visited countries. In several occasions during the tour, the Secretary of State spoke in the spirit of such a common framework.
India was the only place where a very comprehensive joint statement was issued. As such, the entire official document represents a specific and strict analysis on the progress made in bilateral relations and the future projects, as it is the case of the very important result of this time dialogue, namely, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement(a defense agreement between US and India, which allows the United States to share their satellite data with India, so that Delhi could direct their own missiles, deploy troops and increase the accuracy of their drones), as well as on the agreed views on regional and international current developments, starting with challenges emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The dialogue made possible for the two sides to focus on a “shared Vision for the Indo-Pacific and Global Leadership”.
In this key, the “Ministers reiterated their commitment to maintaining a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific built on a rules-based international order, underpinned by ASEAN centrality, rule of law, sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation and over flight, mutual respect for sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of disputes” while they also “emphasized that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.” It was likely in this key that the two foreign ministers decided “to expand joint capacity building efforts with partner countries in the Indo-Pacific and to participate in multilateral peacekeeping training exercises”.
Among the matters discussed, the Quad and the Code of Conduct do send strong signals with regard to the evolution in the South China Sea, however there is no direct mention of China in any of the official documents issued by India with regard to the US Secretary of State’s visit.
In Sri Lanka, in a not very lengthy press release issued by the Presidency regarding the discussions held at highest level, it is underlined that “the State Secretary, expressing the desire of the United State to continue to work closely with Sri Lanka in achieving a high level of economic development, said that the priority will be given to promote US investments in the Island”.
In response, President of Sri Lanka underscored that “what Sri Lanka wants is not obtaining loans continuously, but to achieve a high level of economic growth by attracting more foreign investments”. Elaborating on the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, President emphasized that “it is based on neutrality while the relations between Sri Lanka and other nations are determined by several conditions. Historic and cultural relations, development cooperation are some of the priorities”. The Sri Lankan President added that his country “is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity (...) in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be”.
In his remarks to the press, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, after the bilateral meeting with the US Secretary of State, reiterated that “Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will remain neutral, non-aligned, and friendly”, expressing his hope "to continue our relations with the United States and with other parties." He also stated that, in order to make the bilateral engagements more robust, the two parties agreed “to convene the next sessions of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue – in early 2021, and also progress on several areas including economic, defense, and research through intensified coordination.”
The visit coincided with the anniversary of 72 years of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the USA.
In the Maldives, the Secretary of State announced opening a US Embassy in Malé, five decades after the two countries established diplomatic ties, a move which both sides regarded as a reflection of "the continued growth of the U.S.-Maldives relationship and underscoring the United States' unshakable commitment to Maldives and the Indo-Pacific region." The Maldivian Foreign Minister acknowledged that “a stronger partnership between the U.S. and the Maldives is crucial for promoting security in the Indian Ocean, (...) especially in the fight against radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism.” Previously, on September 10, the US also signed a defense agreement with the Maldives to "deepen engagement and cooperation" in the Indian Ocean.
In Indonesia, the US Secretary of State was received by the President and met the Indonesian Foreign Minister to discuss aspects of their bilateral cooperation (defense, health, economic cooperation, investments in other Indonesian islands, GSP facilities, education, visa), while stressing on the importance of strategic partnership. In return, in the press statement, the Indonesian Foreign Minister commented that her country will "enhance (...) strategic partnership by amplifying our shared values and interests, while respecting our differences" and spoke in favour of“multilateralism that brings benefit to all countries”.
With regard to South China Sea, the Minister reiterated that it should be "maintained as a stable and peaceful sea", where international law should be observed, thus equally distancing Indonesia’s position from the US "free and open" narrative, as well as China's maritime claims. Such a position coincides with the ASEAN stance on the matter.
Vietnam visit was added in the last moment. While Hanoi celebrated 25 years since the normalization of the diplomatic relations with Washington, the Secretary of State met the Vietnamese Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Public Security.
Prime Minister reiterated that "Vietnam always considers the United Stated of America as one of its leading partners” and seeks “to strengthen comprehensive partnership with the US, especially in areas such as the economy, trade and investment.”
The Vietnamese Foreign Minister also stated his country seeks "sincere cooperation" supporting a peaceful region and aiming to intensify the bilateral relations. The visit to Vietnam coincided with the Indo-Pacific Trade Forum, held in Hanoi on 28 and 29 October.
Prima facie evidence in the official documents issued by the visited countries shows that there is no direct mention of China or regarding certain forms of cooperation specifically designed to limit China's influence in the area.
However, the recent tour may anticipate concrete dynamics in the evolution of the regional strategic architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Besides ASEAN, as a traditional stakeholder and the driving force of Southeast Asia, the Quad has been increasingly assertive in the region from political and strategic point of view. China, with its historical claims over the "nine-dash line" has exacerbated the fears of an expansion in the region. Emerging centers of power in the area, such as France and Germany may increase their importance by picking alliances and sharing goals. France, a traditional presence in the area with its Indo-Pacific islands (Reunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia, French Polynesia), would, naturally, seek to maintain the regional peace and stability. Germany, a recent player with commercial and economic interests in the region, announced that a German warship will start patrolling the Indian Ocean by 2021, citing a "rethink across Europe" trend with regards to Indo-Pacific. Russia is as well an important and interested power to maintain and consolidate peace and stability in Indo-Pacific region.
One could argue that the tour can only be interpreted in the key of achieving significant developments in the bilateral relations of the US and the visited countries. Whither it affected the regional architecture, is yet to be observed. Since its establishment, ASEAN, as the main driving force and expression of the regional architecture of Southeast Asia, has remained a collective and united regional organisation, benefiting all the advantages of its non-interference and respect for sovereignty policies. There is little doubt that such a position would change in the near future. Undoubtedly, the biannual 2020 ASEAN Summit, scheduled to begin on November 12, will shed more light in this regard.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.