As the Biden administration begins its second year in office, it is evident that its focus on the Indo-Pacific and geopolitical competition against China remains uneven. There are two small but strategically important countries that have been all but ignored by the administration so far: Cambodia and Laos. This could be a significant miscalculation.
If the United States were to make inroads in Cambodia and Laos—which observers have likened to vassals, satellite states, or virtual colonies of China—it would take strategic competition into China’s own backyard. Perhaps more significantly, it would help undermine the persistent narrative that the United States is only reacting and playing defense in the Indo-Pacific in the face of China’s all-but-inevitable rise. Even more than the facts on the ground, that narrative is a powerful headwind to U.S. strategy in the region. It sows doubts about U.S. engagement even among long-standing allies such as the Philippines and Thailand.