WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is set to visit Vietnam on Sept. 10 following his summit with G20 leaders in New Delhi, India.
“As the United States looks to deepen our ties with the region, Vietnam is a key partner in doing that,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told VOA during her briefing for reporters on Tuesday.
Biden is skipping two key regional meetings that Jakarta is hosting just days earlier: the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the East Asia Summit, which brings the ASEAN countries together with partners including the United States, China and Russia. Vice President Kamala Harris will attend those meetings in his place.
Indonesia is this year’s chair of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the group’s country coordinator of U.S.-ASEAN relations. Diplomatic sources who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations told VOA that Jakarta had taken steps to align ASEAN’s meeting calendar with Biden’s travel to India in the hopes of securing his attendance.
U.S. officials insist the decision to skip is not a sign of disrespect for Jakarta.
“The president actually was in Indonesia less than a year ago for the G20 and for a substantial bilateral program with [President] Joko Widodo,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA in a recent press briefing.
Still, a visit by an American president signals the strategic value Washington attaches to a country and the level to which it wants to elevate bilateral ties.
Both Vietnam and Indonesia are key players in the U.S.-led bid to counter China in the region, so why is Biden is favoring one over the other?
Vietnam agreeing to upgrade ties with US
While Indonesia has been a U.S. strategic partner since 2015, Hanoi only now appears ready to upgrade ties after 10 years of comprehensive partnership.
Diplomatic sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly told VOA that to buffer against Chinese aggression over their maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam is willing to go even further – straight to comprehensive strategic partnership. This would put Washington at the same level with four other countries – China, Russia, India and South Korea
Harris offered to upgrade relations when she visited Hanoi in August 2021, but Vietnam had been hesitant to accept, mainly due to concerns of potential backlash from China.
The upgraded partnership would bolster Vietnam’s efforts to develop its high-technology sector in areas including semiconductor production and artificial intelligence — both key industries in the U.S.-China strategic rivalry.
Beijing more assertive in South China Sea
Despite being ideologically aligned, Vietnam’s relationship with China has been undercut by maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing says it has sovereignty over almost all the waters, overlapping claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
As Beijing grows more assertive, Hanoi is protecting its territorial rights by diversifying diplomatic partnerships and strengthening capabilities. It’s planning its own military buildup in the waters after satellite images showed China reportedly building a runway on a disputed island.
Biden spelled out the reason for the visit during a campaign reception earlier this month.
“They want relationships because they want China to know that they’re not alone,” he said.
Washington is happy to oblige. In the past few years, under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the administration has supported Vietnam’s maritime security and monitoring capabilities by providing two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters — the most significant major defense transfer between the two countries.
Jakarta drifting to Beijing?
Constitutionally, Indonesia is bound by its “independent and active” foreign policy, under which it seeks to play a role in regional affairs but avoid great power rivalries. But under its “4 + 1 priorities” doctrine for the 2019-2024 period, the country places “economic diplomacy” above all other foreign policy goals.
Because of his national development agenda, Widodo is pragmatic in his engagement with Beijing and is inviting more Chinese investment, said Yeremia Lalisang, who teaches Chinese foreign policy at the University of Indonesia.
“This is all happening at the expense of Indonesia’s traditionally close engagement with the United States,” he told VOA.
The region in general has expressed a growing preference to align with Washington rather than Beijing, according to the latest survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. However, Indonesians were among the outliers, together with citizens of Malaysia and Brunei.
When forced to choose, more Indonesians believe ASEAN should choose Beijing over Washington. The percentage of Indonesians choosing the U.S. fell from 64.3% in 2021 to 46.3% in 2023, while those choosing China rose from 35.7% to 53.7%.
The “biggest homework” for the Widodo government is finding balance between the superpowers, said Rangga Aditya Elias, head of the international relations department at Binus University in Indonesia.
“Otherwise, Jakarta to some extent will become a second-tier partner compared to Vietnam,” he told VOA.
One way for Jakarta to maintain balance is to look to Washington to provide arms. Last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto met his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Washington. The pair announced their mutual intention to increase Indonesia’s defense capabilities.
Not much ASEAN progress
Under Jakarta’s chairmanship there has not been much progress on ASEAN’s two key regional security issues — human rights atrocities in Myanmar since its 2021 military coup and South China Sea disputes, said Idil Syawfi, director of the Parahyangan Centre for International Studies at Parahyangan Catholic University, Indonesia.
As chair, Indonesia is focused on economic growth and not investing much on geopolitical and security issues, Syawfi told VOA. So, for Biden, “There’s nothing to do in Indonesia in September.”
Compared to its chairmanship at the 2022 G20, observers say Jakarta is spending considerably fewer diplomatic resources on ASEAN this year, partly because it’s domestically focused on its 2024 presidential elections. While Widodo cannot run for a third term, he is consolidating his legacy as a champion of infrastructure projects, including the massive move of the Indonesian capital from crowded Java to Borneo.