Biden’s ASEAN Summit: More symbolic than central to the US Indo-Pacific strategy

Biden’s ASEAN Summit: More symbolic than central to the US Indo-Pacific strategy

Biden has now held a special summit with the Asean, where nothing came of it and the US only promised 150 million economic aid. The Asia Times reports on this

“US- Asean summit more a pledge of commitment than a showcase of substantive action 

Tan Hui Yee

Indochina Bureau Chief

mAY 14, 2022, 9:49 PM SGT

BANGKOK – There was a wide range of agendas at play at this week’s special summit in Washington DC between United States and Asean leaders, but it was fundamentally a pledge of US commitment to South-east Asia.

It gave a teaser of Washington’s initiatives rather than clear answers to some of the region’s biggest questions.

US President Joe Biden announced he was nominating his National Security Council chief of staff Yohannes Abraham for the post of US Ambassador to Asean. It was a post that had been left vacant for five years, which raised questions about the US‘ interest in the region even as it sought to counter Beijing’s dominance.

Washington also announced more than US$150 million (S$209 million) in initiatives to drive US-Asean cooperation.

One component was a US$40 million investment in clean energy infrastructure. Another US$60 million will be dedicated to maritime programmes led mostly by the US Coast Guard, which will deploy assets and personnel to help build maritime law enforcement capacities of South-east Asian nations and prioritise the transfer of decommissioned cutters there.

„What the priority seems to point to, is China. These are all things to counter China’s maritime assertion and of course the Belt and Road Initiative,“ said Ms Joanne Lin, lead researcher of the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute’s Asean Studies Centre.

Beijing is known to assert its claim over most of the strategic South China Sea through „grey zone“ tactics, such as sending fishing or survey boats escorted by coast guard vessels into waters also claimed by countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.

The joint vision statement released at the end of the summit declared a commitment to raise the level of cooperation between Asean and the US to that of a „comprehensive strategic partnership“ in November.

Many questions, however, remain unanswered: What kind of economic initiatives would the US extend to a region trying to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and smarting from the fallout of the Ukraine war? And would Washington’s coming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) be substantive enough to make up for its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017?

Ms Lin noted that the IPEF was „really what the region has been looking forward to, a lot more than this long list of initiatives“, which do not include anything substantive in terms of trade.

In his speech on Friday (May 13), Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke for many when he reminded his counterparts of the massive human and economic toll of the war in Ukraine.

„For some of Asean member countries, a 10 per cent rise in crude oil price means a 0.7 per cent reduction in national income, and a rise in wheat price will increase poverty by 1 per cent,“ he said.

Laos, meanwhile, is grappling with a fuel shortage caused by the depreciating kip and spiking oil prices.

Despite the keen interest among Asean member states, Washington is expected to unveil details of the IPEF only when Mr Biden visits Japan later this month for the summit of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) involving the US, Japan, Australia and India.”

Mr Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the US-based think-tank Rand Corporation, called the delay a „major missed opportunity“.

„(Mr Biden) said that the Asean centrality is at the heart of his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. If that’s true, then the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework should have been unveiled… to allow for time to talk about how Asean can integrate into it. Instead, by unveiling it later on during the Quad summit, it’s going to look like an extra-regional framework of which Asean is not really a factor.“

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on whether Mr Biden demonstrates commitment by personally attending the Asean summit and related meetings hosted by Cambodia in November. He took part in the virtual summit last year.“

Apparently the US is giving a shit about ASEAN at the moment. On the one hand, ASEAN was and is not as central to the USA’s Indo-Pacific strategy as it is to Germany or the EU. The USA seems to have come to the conclusion that it is not a politically useful and possible to  force the ASEAN to take sides in the fight against Russia and China, and they don’t want to either face the choice of USA-China, especially since Biden suspects that this will do no good, more of a symbolic summit in view of AUKUS and Quad, where the next US visits will lead him, also no offer to integrate the ASEAN as part of the American New Silk Road B3WT or more investments. There seems no the prospect of bringing something in from the American side when it comes to infrastructure projects, but secretly the USA seem only relying on the 3 more pro-American ASEAN countries bilaterally, with the back channel talks with Vietnam to establish a US military base there like the Soviet Union in Cam Rhan or like the US and GB base in Singapore. which had so far no success . Nevertheless, the fight between China and the USA in the Indo-Pacific has flared up. The Chinese advances in Cambodia to turn a port into a military base have so far been met by Hun Sen as dismissively as Vietnam has been toward US advances. The Chinese attempts to slowly establish further military bases in Sri Lanka and the Solomon Islands are now encountering the resistance of a coloured revolution in Sri Lanka and, in the case of the Solomon Islands, proposals from Australian and US politicians for military intervention to simply cut off the way for the Chinese to the Indo-Pacific are voiced very openly. The USA and China look also very closely to  the Philippines if the Bongbong Marcos clan with the Duterte daughter will go more of a neutralist way or more of a pro-Chinese way – at least it is clear to the USA that the Philippines are no longer going back to the good old days of Subic Bay and the Marcos clan like the KMT in Taiwan remember  that the USA in their view  was“betraying“ them, be it  the USA under Roosevelt/ Truman/Stillwel or Nixon giving China to Mao or under Reagan toppling Marcos in favour of the democratic People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines, as they also compare the US withdrawal from the Greater Middle East and most recently Afghanistan with themselves and South Vietnam in 1975. However the question is if the Marcos and Duterte clan want some sort of a Chinese Subic Bay. In addition, the USA cannot offer a free trade agreement like the EU with ASEAN, since TPP and TTIP has been already be canceled under Trump and are no longer up for discussion under Biden, especially under pressure and the lasting aftermath of Trump’s American First economic nationalism, at best bilateral free trade agreements, while China has since RCEP and the New Silk Road. One gets the impression that the USA, unlike the EU, is still paying very little attention to ASEAN in its Indo-Pacific strategy. And 150 million US dollars is the amount that a philanthropist could also mobilize through crowdfunding in the West, far below such Bill Gates and Elon Musk phliantrope thresholds, especially since it is only symbolic and not realpolitik and also compared to an allegedly superpower and economic power. At least Biden is holding an Asean summit at all, while Trump completely ignored this place during his reign and skipped Asean summits like APECmeetings and didn’t attend even virtually.

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