Kamala Harris in March 2021. The US has a defense partnership with Singapore and is the largest foreign direct investor there. And the US has growing trade with Vietnam, which opposes China’s massive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – US Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to begin her official visit to Southeast Asia on Sunday – a region where China’s economic and political influence has grown in recent years.

Harris is slated to arrive in Singapore on Sunday before heading to Vietnam on Tuesday and leaving the region on Thursday.

President Joe Biden has made it a priority to build America’s reputation in Asia. and strengthening ties with Southeast Asian countries is an important part of Washington’s goal of keeping China’s ambitions in check.

Southeast Asia is home to more than 660 million people and some of the fastest growing developing countries. The strategic importance of the region also lies in its proximity to the South China Sea, a major merchant shipping route through which trillions of dollars of world trade pass each year.

The vice president’s visit followed several high-level U.S. engagements with Southeast Asian leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended virtual meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN earlier this month, while Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited several countries in the region in July, including Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Biden versus Trump

Compared to the Trump administration, Biden and his team appeared much “more thoughtful and measured” in theirs. Engagement in Southeast Asian countries, said Angela Mancini, partner and head of markets in Asia Pacific at the consulting firm Control Risks.

She said that while the US-China strategic rivalry is the “number one” bipartisan foreign policy issue in the US, the Biden administration admits that Southeast Asian countries do not want to choose between the US and China.

The Biden government is keen to make it clear that their commitment to Southeast Asia is much, much broader than this one issue …

Angela Mancini

Control risks

“The previous administration was very clear that the strategic rivalry between the US and China is the most important issue in this region. That has sometimes put countries in a position to have to choose which side to take, ”Mancini told CNBC.

“The Biden government is keen to make it clear that their commitment to Southeast Asia is much, much broader than this one issue … addressed through active partnership and engagement,” she added.

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The White House said in a statement last month that Harris will involve Singapore and Vietnam leaders on issues such as regional security, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

Former President Donald Trump has been criticized for his absence at a number of key regional summits in Southeast Asia, which has led some political observers to question US commitment to the region.

This apparent US disinterest during Trump’s tenure coincided with China’s more aggressive push in the region through programs such as infrastructure investments as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road initiative.

US priorities in Southeast Asia

By choosing Singapore and Vietnam for Harris’ first official trip to In Southeast Asia, the US has shown it is prioritizing regional security and economic opportunity in the region, Mancini said.

The US has a defense partnership with Singapore and is the largest foreign direct investor in the Asian financial center. The US now has a growing trade relationship with Vietnam, which is a vocal opponent of China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In economic terms, trade would have been “the most natural” way for the USA to deepen its engagement in Southeast Asia – but the USA Domestic policy is a serious obstacle, said Mancini.

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Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, a mega-trade pact that included eleven other countries, including those in Southeast Asia. The other countries have renegotiated the agreement and signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in March 2018.

Alex Feldman, President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, said the US will not join the CPTPP in the short term. The TPP was widely criticized in the US and never approved by Congress.

But the US could make digital economy agreements with countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region, Feldman told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia last week.

Singapore has digital economy agreements with Australia, Chile and New Zealand.

Digital trade agreement

An agreement that focuses on the digital economy lays down rules and standards for digital commerce between the participating countries, such as the storage of cross-border data and the protection of personal data.

“We think that … a bilateral agreement with Singapore makes a lot of sense to set the rules for the path of the digital economy that is increasingly becoming an economy in Asia,” Feldman said, adding that a bilateral agreement could be opened the door to a larger, more multilateral one in the future.

While there are “good reasons” for the US to pursue and lead a new digital deal, Washington may have a hard time getting other countries to join, said Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Center consultancy.

Elms said in a report last week that such agreements were not new and that the US was entering “an increasingly crowded landscape.” Deals that include digital initiatives include the CPTPP and the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, she noted.

“The US needs to have a clear and compelling rationale for starting over with another trade agreement, and it needs to add value to potential members with a few buyers,” Elms wrote.