President Joe Biden declared a “new era” for U.S.-ASEAN relations at the end of an in-person summit with regional leaders in Washington last week.
“The ASEAN centrality is the very heart of my administration’s strategy in pursuing the future we all want to see,” he told his ASEAN guests in the State Department’s Harry S Truman building. “And I mean that sincerely.”
Washington made a fresh $150 million pledge to fund the bloc on economy, health, energy, education, including a $60 million allocation for maritime security endeavors undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guards. And Biden appointed national security staffer Yohannes Abraham as the new U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, a position that has been vacant since January 2017.
It was indeed an eventful week in Washington for all involved, marking a renewed U.S. commitment to ASEAN after four years of neglect under former President Trump. But experts caution that keeping up the momentum — and effectively engaging ASEAN in U.S. efforts to counter China’s regional influence — remains an uphill challenge.
“The fact that the Summit finally took place after a postponement in March is positive and much needed at this juncture,” said Sharon Seah, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s ASEAN Studies Centre in Singapore.
“ASEAN cannot escape the fact that China is in its own backyard and the US acknowledges that. The US has also said that they did not expect ASEAN to choose sides. This is something that ASEAN member states are loath to do,” she added.
Still, Seah said the eight-page joint vision statement that came out of the summit helped create a common sense of U.S. goals in the region, where ASEAN stands strategically, and the role of its members in maintaining global balance.
“The momentum should be maintained by working towards the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that will be announced in November,” she said.
The summit took place amid growing Chinese influence in the region, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and the bloc’s struggle to address the post-coup crisis in Myanmar.
The joint statement issued after the summit also addressed the South China Sea dispute, in which China has overlapped maritime border claims with four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
“We recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” the statement reads. “We emphasise the importance of practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculation.”
Chinese and ASEAN officials will gather this month in Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, to continue negotiations over the South China Sea’s code of conduct, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press briefing in Beijing on May 13.
Cambodia, during its last time in the ASEAN chair more than a decade ago, blocked mention of the dispute in a joint resolution, a move widely seen as a favor to Beijing.
China continues to provoke its smaller neighbors over South China Sea claims, such as the Chinese Coast Guards issuing a summer “fishing moratorium” in contested waters with Vietnam from May 1 to August 16 and its coast guards law promulgated in 2021, viewed by experts as a move to assert its jurisdiction that could undermine code of conduct talks.
Among the U.S.’ $150 million pledge to ASEAN, $60 million of which goes to “new regional maritime initiatives,” most of which will be led by the U.S. Coast Guard” focused on “countering Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing”.
And the U.S. remains deeply concerned about the presence of China’s military in Cambodia’s Ream Naval base in Sihanoukville, which it worries could become a permanent port for Beijing’s navy in the region.
Both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his deputy, Wendy Sherman, separately met Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, in Washington to reiterate U.S. concerns over the base, which was at the center of U.S. sanctions against senior Cambodian military figures last year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has insisted that Cambodia would not allow any foreign militaries to operate in the country, and has shrugged off suggestions that Phnom Penh, through Chinese largesse and investment, is becoming a proxy for Beijing in the ASEAN bloc.
Pongphisoot Busbarat, an assistant professor in international relations at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, agreed that “the China factor still looms large. Asean will not be willing to take any stronger position or moves if that will affect its relations with China.”
Busbarat told VOA Khmer that the U.S.’ endeavor to boost ties with ASEAN via the Washington summit was still “relatively modest”.
“The US economic initiatives that should be the main thrust to push the ties further are still unclear. Nothing specific was mentioned in the Statement besides what has already been in place,” he said.
“For example, the promise of a $150 million package to Asean on regional development is still minimal. This cannot be expected to create any strong impact but rather be a symbol and good gesture,” Busbarat added.
Susannah Patton, a research fellow who directs the power and diplomacy project at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said the U.S. needs a “sharper focus” when it comes to engaging Southeast Asia.
“The US also needs to deliver some bigger programs or initiatives through ASEAN institutions, to help mitigate the perception that the US prefers to work around ASEAN in groups such as the Quad,” she told VOA Khmer, referring to the alliance between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan.
The summit was not used to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – a much-anticipated U.S. scheme to boost economic ties in the region – though it was reportedly discussed in the meetings last week.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking to the city-state’s media after the summit, said there had not been “much substance” thus far regarding the framework, though he said the summit “has its own value” and was “a new start.”
He added the U.S. played an “indispensable” role in ensuring regional security, but added that “US participation in the Asia-Pacific cannot be only limited to security and defence. It must also consist of economic cooperation, and also include other areas such as on environmental issues.”
Vice President Kamala Harris told ASEAN leaders during a working lunch on May 13 that the U.S.-ASEAN economic partnership was in American interests too, saying it “directly affects the prosperity and security of the American people.”
“On the issue of prosperity, resilient supply chains in Southeast Asia benefit American consumers. When global supply chains are flowing, more goods are available and prices, of course, come down,” Harris added.
However, Biden, like his predecessor, has been inclined toward economic protectionism and prioritizing goods “Made in America,” which could run counter to serious expansion of trade relations with regions like Southeast Asia.
Though expectations are high that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework could be a “launching pad” for trade relations envisioned under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was scrapped by Trump before taking effect, it’s unclear whether that is realistic, said Patton of the Lowy Institute.
“The [IPEF] is unlikely to meet Southeast Asian countries' demands,” she told VOA Khmer. “During the recent US-ASEAN Summit, even ASEAN countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia who would be among the most likely participants expressed reservations about the IPEF and which aspects they would join.”
Keeping the Momentum
Speaking after Harris on May 13, Hun Sen verbally invited Biden to Phnom Penh in November to attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit. If Biden comes to Phnom Penh, it would be the first time in five years that a U.S. president attended ASEAN-led meetings in person.
Trump visited Vietnam for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and attended ASEAN-led summits in the Philippines in 2017. He later came to Southeast Asia twice – to Singapore in 2018 and to Hanoi in 2019 – only to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, sending then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to other summits.
Though the Biden administration is restoring attention to the region, Seah of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said there could be policy shifts after the U.S.’ midterm election this year and presidential elections two years from now.
“The question of whether another Trump-ian administration is a possibility in 2024 has been on the minds of some ASEAN countries,” Seah said.
“Executive decisions can be easily overturned by the next President. Pragmatically speaking, one way is to embed engagement by way of a Congressionally-approved agreement e.g. in the area of economic cooperation. Once multilateral obligations are signed into law, it is harder to overturn,” she added.
Patton added the fact ASEAN is reluctant to challenge China could also remain a barrier to advance intimate ties with the U.S. “ASEAN countries will need to work harder to influence the US, and not just wait for the US to come to them,” she said.
What About Rights?
The summit’s joint statement “abstains” from outrightly condemning Myanmar’s junta or Russia’s invasion and doesn’t even directly mention “democracy” or “human rights,” despite the U.S. stated commitment to pushing those principles around the world, noted Busbarat of Chulalongkorn University.
Excluding Brunei which is ruled by absolute monarchy, four countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) are authoritarian and five (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) are flawed democracies, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index.
Two nations, Myanmar and the Philippines, did not send top leaders to attend the summit. Outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte cited the pending leadership transition to justify declining the invitation, but has also had a rocky relationship with America, due in part to his violent ‘War on Drugs.’
Myanmar’s place and name-plate were left blank throughout the meetings, after the post-coup military regime refused to send a downgraded non-political representative to attend the meeting.
At the same time, there was an active presence in Washington, D.C. from the anti-junta National Unity Government, with the group’s foreign minister, Zaw Min Aung, meeting with Sherman.
Setting human rights aside, at least on a leader-to-leader level, appears to be part of the U.S. strategy to build relations with ASEAN, said Busbarat.
“This approach may be at the expense of democracy and human rights development in the region,” he said. “It means core human rights concerns will have to be played down, at least at the official level, if the US needs Asean’s support for its larger politico-security strategy.”