Washington’s No 2 diplomat will criss-cross East and Southeast Asia on a nine-day trip beginning on Sunday, the latest in a recent burst of top-level US diplomacy in the region.
Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will meet with officials in South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Laos, the State Department said on Friday.
Her trip comes amid worsening tensions with Beijing – but also questions about the US engagement in Asia while Washington has been consumed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The deputy secretary’s travel to the region reflects the United States’ continued commitment to the Indo-Pacific,” the department said.
US President Joe Biden and officials in his administration have said repeatedly that the US views its alliances and partnerships throughout the region as vital to its strategy to compete with an increasingly assertive China.
Even as the war in Ukraine rages past its 100th day with no apparent end in sight, administration officials have emphasised that they still regard China as their top priority.
Sherman’s trip comes just days after Biden himself travelled to South Korea and Japan to meet with the two countries’ leaders.
While in Tokyo, Biden announced a new US-led economic initiative for the region called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and he met with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia – an informal security grouping known as the Quad.
Both associations are widely viewed as counters to Beijing’s influence in the region.
Before that trip, Biden hosted a rare special meeting in Washington of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
“This is really a big flurry of activity for the United States to show that it’s still very much focused on the Asian region,” said Deepa Ollapally, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs who is writing a book on big power competition in the Indian Ocean.
“It goes without saying that China is the main issue in this flurry of activities,” she said. “No one misses the point – at least not in Asia.”
Sherman has already made multiple visits to the region, including to China. During this trip, she will meet in Seoul with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts – part of the Biden administration’s efforts to improve “trilateral” diplomacy among the three nations, after years of tension between Seoul and Tokyo.
South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has signalled he wants to align more closely with the United States and Japan on geopolitical issues, including competition with China.
In the Philippines, Sherman will meet with President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, the son of the former dictator who ruled the nation from 1965 to 1986.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea – which a 2016 UN arbitral tribunal declared has no basis in international law – and those claims include large swathes of the exclusive economic zone off the Philippine coast.
The two countries are entangled in a dispute over the area, and the Chinese coastguard has been accused of harassing Philippine fishing boats.
During the Donald Trump administration, Washington formally declared that it rejected China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea; Marcos said recently that he would use the 2016 tribunal ruling to assert “our territorial right”.
In Vietnam, Sherman will meet with Vietnamese officials about trade and economic issues.
As Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy continues, numerous large US companies, including Apple, have reportedly sought to move production from Chinese factories to Vietnam. Sherman is expected to discuss “supply chain resiliency” with officials in Hanoi.
“China is already the dominant economic actor in East Asia,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But that could potentially change, at least to some extent, “if China continues to follow a zero-Covid strategy in which – against all advice from medical experts – they’re deferring to the will of one man who seems determined to follow a strategy that is undermining their economy”, Kurlantzick added, referring to Xi.
Laos, experts said, is not a major geopolitical player – but just the fact that officials there had agreed to host Sherman could be a signal to its next-door neighbour China, which holds a large influence over the country’s economy.
“Laos has been very careful,” said Ollapally. “It has generally been closer to China than other Southeast Asian countries. And maybe Wendy Sherman is trying to pick one away.”
In the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Sherman is expected to discuss the country’s sustainable development goals, new American support for clearing unexploded mines left from the Vietnam war era, and civil society initiatives to promote “mutual understanding between our countries”.
“It will impress the Laotians that she’s actually choosing Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines and then Laos,” Ollapally added. “That is also somewhat of a signal to the Chinese, especially when this is part of a group that is not necessarily overly friendly to China.”