Review of US-ASEAN relations as Biden convenes special summit

This week, eight Southeast Asian leaders are traveling to Washington for a special summit hosted by President Joe Biden. They represent the bulk of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a diverse group ranging from the city-state of Singapore to the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia. Taken together, the 10 ASEAN countries have a population of over 680 million – more than Latin America, the Middle East or the European Union – forming the fifth largest economy in the world with a GDP of 3, 2 trillion dollars.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has become a hotbed of strategic rivalry between China and the United States. Along with aggressive efforts to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is increasingly achieving its strategic goals through economic policy. Its signature infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and new regional trade deals like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are expected to accelerate intra-Asian integration around China.

The summit will focus heavily on economic issues, reflecting US efforts to address the China challenge and expand economic engagement with the region. Biden is also expected to push ASEAN leaders to adopt more critical stances toward Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. On the first day of the summit, they will meet with Congressional leaders Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Trade Representative Katherine Tai, followed by a White House dinner hosted by President Biden. The summit will move to the State Department on day two, with discussions focusing on infrastructure, supply chain resilience, climate change and sustainability, culminating in a plenary session with Biden. Climate challenges resonate strongly in Southeast Asia, a maritime region particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and severe weather events.

The gathering provides an opportunity to take stock of U.S.-ASEAN relations during the second year of the Biden administration. What has emerged, it seems, is a convergence of unrealistic expectations, with both sides wanting what the other is unable to deliver. For ASEAN, which wants to reduce its economic dependence on China, the hope is that Washington will commit to a regional economic strategy that includes binding trade commitments and, eventually, a return to what is now the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Agreement. Partnership (CPTPP). But expanding market access is a political no-go for Biden, with Trump-era protectionist sentiment still high among key segments of the U.S. electorate. For Washington, the hope is that ASEAN will resist Chinese aggression or at least voice support for a rules-based order that limits Chinese behavior. But he is a non-starter for ASEAN, which is internally divided and does not want to take sides between Washington and Beijing.

the Biden administration’s engagement with ASEAN

Last year, the Biden team got off to a slow start with ASEAN, but engagement picked up in the second half with a series of high-level visits to the region by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. President Biden virtually attended the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit, which takes place each fall alongside the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. “I want you all to hear directly from me the importance the United States places on our relationship with ASEAN,” he told the group. Biden also underscored the United States’ commitment to ASEAN “centrality,” the notion that ASEAN provides the central platform in which regional institutions are anchored.

During this period, a key theme of the administration’s message to ASEAN was that Washington was not asking the region to choose between the United States and China, but rather trying to get countries to Southeast Asia have a choice. This theme was evident when Blinken previewed the administration’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy in a speech in Jakarta. He was sharply critical of China, decrying “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea and economic practices “opening up markets through subsidies to its state-owned enterprises”. However, he also said the goal is “not to hold a country down”, but to “protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, without coercion, without intimidation”.

The new message and increased engagement were appreciated in the region. However, as “strategic competition” clearly hardened as the new paradigm for US-China relations, anxiety about the inevitability and perils of binary choice seemed to be growing among Southeast Asians.

The core content of Blinken’s speech was formalized as policy when the White House released its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” in February 2022. A key theme is that the goal of creating a free and open Indo-Pacific, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient The Pacific cannot be achieved if Washington acts alone. On the contrary, historical challenges and the changing strategic landscape “demand unprecedented cooperation with those who share this vision”. To that end, the United States will “deepen its longstanding cooperation with ASEAN” and engage on climate and other pressing issues, while exploring “opportunities for the Quad to work with ASEAN.” .

This reference to the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral grouping is tied to the administration’s parallel efforts to expand the Quad’s focus beyond security to include a new vaccine partnership as well as task forces. on climate change and emerging technologies. Southeast Asia has been wary of the Quad, seeing it as a challenge to ASEAN’s centrality. In this new framework, however, the Quad could become a source of public goods for Southeast Asia rather than a competitor in Asia’s dense patchwork of regional institutions.

Thailand as part of the Quad Vaccine Partnership (April 21, 2022). Source: US Embassy and Consulate in Thailand website.

In October, Biden also announced plans for a US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The framework, which could be launched this month, will allow countries to enroll in “different modules covering Fair and Resilient Trade, Supply Chain Resilience, Infrastructure and Decarbonization, and Tax and the fight against corruption”.

The regional response

The administration’s approach to Southeast Asia appears to have produced short-term dividends. In a November-December regional survey of ASEAN policy experts, the level of trust in the United States rose to 52.8% from 47.0% the previous year. 58.5% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that strengthening the Quad, including through practical cooperation, would be constructive for the region.

On the other hand, only 45.8% of respondents perceived that U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia had increased under Biden, a decline from expectations a year earlier. According to the latest Asia Power Index from the Lowy Institute, the United States recorded a 10.7 point decline in economic relations, even as it gained considerable diplomatic influence. Meanwhile, there has been little reaction from ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific strategy. While this may be due to the timing of its release just before Russia invaded Ukraine, it is also because ASEAN countries prioritize economic issues. They have largely focused on the IPEF, but regional reception of the framework has been lukewarm due to its emphasis on setting standards rather than liberalizing the market.

Regional opinions are also mixed on the Russian-Ukrainian war. Only Singapore has sanctioned Russia. Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines condemned the invasion without identifying Russia as the aggressor; Vietnam and Laos abstained in March 2 United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russian aggression; and Myanmar’s military leadership strongly supported the invasion. Singapore’s Goodwill Ambassador Chan Heng Chee said the varied response shows ASEAN countries are seeking a “third space” in their diplomacy as they strive to avoid taking sides between critics of the invasion led by the United States and the pro-Russian camp exemplified by China. This response is seen in Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s decision to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to attend the G-20 summit in Bali in November while resisting Western pressure to exclude Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian arms exports undoubtedly shape the interests of some states. As shown in the figure below, taken from the Lowy Institute’s Asian Power Index, Russia is the main arms supplier to Vietnam and Laos, as well as India.

Source: “Asia Power Index”, Lowy Institute, 2021,
Source: “Asia Power Index”, Lowy Institute, 2021,

Mindful of these divisions and sensitivities about the Quad, the Biden administration has responded to ASEAN demands to respect the “centrality of ASEAN,” in part in the hope that the group can effectively address difficult regional issues. such as the deterioration of the political and humanitarian situation in Myanmar. The divergent strategic perspectives among ASEAN members, which have grown from five countries when it was established in 1967 to 10 by the end of the 1990s, are understandable. Yet ASEAN’s constant assertions of its “centrality” seem increasingly defensive to those outside the region, exposing insecurity rather than a sense of community and trust. Southeast Asian foreign policy experts themselves have expressed growing concern, saying ASEAN is facing the most serious institutional crisis in its history. ASEAN centrality cannot simply be claimed, they argue; It must be earned.

The summit and beyond

It is in this context that the special summit is meeting, no doubt determining what is included (or not) in the outcome document on issues such as Myanmar, Ukraine and trade. Regional observers will watch whether the document sets out a firm timetable for transforming ASEAN’s relationship with the United States into a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, as with China and Australia last year. Meanwhile, the administration plans to roll out a number of initiatives at the summit. He could also inspire confidence by announcing new diplomatic appointments in the region, particularly for the long-vacant post of ambassador to ASEAN itself.

In the longer term, it is incumbent on the United States and ASEAN to approach their relationship through a prism of creative realism, understanding the constraints on both sides but also the opportunities – including a shared concern for climate change and sustainable development in the years to come. Doubling down on the US-ASEAN Climate Futures initiative, announced in October 2021, would be a good start.

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