The Latest on Southeast Asia: January 20, 2022

After a slow start, the Biden administration has begun to secure confirmation of some top diplomatic appointees for Southeast Asia. Several important posts, however, remain not only vacant but without any nominee.

The Senate in September finally confirmed Dan Kritenbrink, most recently ambassador to Vietnam, as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. Two months later, Jonathan Kaplan became ambassador to Singapore—a post which was empty for nearly five years. Kaplan is a political appointee with considerable experience in the tech sector, which the Biden administration hopes will be useful as it promotes closer ties with Singapore on digital trade and regional economic engagement.

On December 18, in its final business of 2021, the Senate confirmed dozens of nominees. These included Marc Knapper to replace Kritenbrink as ambassador to Vietnam and Caryn McClelland as ambassador to Brunei. Both are senior members of the foreign service with deep experience in the Indo-Pacific. Knapper was most recently the deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan and served as chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea. McClelland has previously served in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

With these confirmations, the administration finally has ambassadors in most of Southeast Asia. They join Brian McFeeters in Malaysia, Peter Haymond in Laos, Patrick Murphy in Cambodia, Thomas Vajda in Myanmar, and Sung Kim, who serves concurrently as ambassador to Indonesia and special representative for North Korea. All five are career foreign service officers with deep experience in the region.

The White House is also making progress with long-delayed nominations across the wider Indo-Pacific. The Senate confirmed former senator Tom Udall as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa on October 26. The slate of confirmations on December 18 included Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former ambassador to NATO, as ambassador to China; Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff, to Japan; and Julie Chung, a foreign service officer with experience across the region, to Sri Lanka. That week, the White House also nominated Caroline Kennedy, who formerly represented the United States in Japan, to serve as ambassador to Australia. And on January 12, 2022, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointment as ambassador to India, paving the way for his eventual confirmation by the Senate.

This is welcome progress in a region in which the previous White House left many posts unfilled. But that only makes the remaining gaps more vexing. A year into office, the administration has not nominated an ambassador to three of its treaty allies: the Philippines, South Korea, or Thailand. It has also not named a new ambassador to ASEAN, a post which has been vacant for five years.

These are critical positions that Washington cannot afford to neglect. The Philippines and South Korea are both heading into elections this year. The administration is working to lock in recent progress shoring up the Philippine alliance. Thailand is a hub for U.S. engagement across Southeast Asia and the most important partner in any effort to tackle the crisis in neighboring Myanmar. And the ASEAN ambassadorship is an important symbol of Washington’s commitment to ASEAN centrality—the United States was, after all, the first external partner to name a permanent representative to the organization. Leaving any of these posts vacant longer than necessary does real damage to U.S. priorities in the region.

For updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, visit our online Tracker.