U.S. President Joe Biden is hoping to use the US-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh next week to continue making his case for strengthened economic ties and diplomatic neutrality in a region that has become a geopolitical battleground between America and China.
Biden’s visit comes several months after the White House hosted a summit of ASEAN leaders as part of a charm offensive to highlight America’s commitment to the region. However, analysts were pessimistic that Biden’s high-profile diplomacy would curb the influence of the superpower in ASEAN’s backyard.
“This is because China is an important economic partner for the region…and China has also established many functional areas of cooperation with ASEAN, many of which are already institutionalized,” said Joanne Lin Weiling, a co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Center at the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.
She noted that Biden’s strategic alliances in the region were largely intended to counter China, which made them an uncomfortable fit for ASEAN, which includes countries like Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, which have “very strong ties and relations with China.”
Still, the Biden administration is hoping to find a receptive audience in areas such as maritime cooperation, sustainable development, connectivity and economic relations — and will likely avoid issues that raise obvious conflicts with Beijing.
“The reality in the region is most of the ASEAN member states are trying desperately to not be forced into making a choice between China and the US,” Phil Robertson, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told VOA Khmer.
“So, there is an ongoing game of strategic ambiguity in the region, where ASEAN member states will take what they can from each side while trying to make as few concrete commitments as they can which would cause them problems with one side or the other.”
The White House announced that Biden will attend the 10th U.S.-ASEAN Summit in person from November 12-13. Participants are expected to establish the U.S.-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) to boost multilateral relations.
The US-ASEAN Summit is part of a series of diplomatic meetings around the ASEAN summit, which Cambodia is hosting before it passes the baton of annual leadership for the regional grouping to next year’s chair, Indonesia.
It comes during a time of soaring geopolitical tensions over the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s ambitions to take control of Taiwan. The most pressing crisis within ASEAN continues to be Myanmar, where the junta has refused regional diplomatic interventions or global calls to release political prisoners.
“The Myanmar crisis will be front and center in the discussions at the ASEAN summit because both the ASEAN member states as well as the various dialogue partners are extremely concerned by the disastrous situation in that country, the massive rights violations and crimes against humanity happening every day there, and the growing civil war,” said Robertson.
He added that he hoped the bloc would agree on “clear penalties” if Myanmar fails to release political prisoners, cease attacks on its people or move toward democracy, such as a global arms embargo, and targeted sanctions against the junta and its business interests.
But when it comes to making commitments around democracy and human rights in their own countries, Robertson said Washington was unlikely to secure any firm agreements.
Seven ASEAN member states are also part of the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was launched in May this year to further economic collaboration in areas such as digital economy, supply chain resilience, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure.
Chheang Vannarith, executive president of Asian Vision Institute in Cambodia, noted the ASEAN Summits come just days after Xi Jinping secured power for another term during the Communist Party Congress. And Taiwan is just one area of growing stress between China and the U.S., simmering tensions over the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“So, the Chinese role and influence in the world are growing at the same time the power competition between United States and China is still rising in the region and the world. So, that is very complicated,” he said.
Cambodia faces the difficult task this week of keeping 10 ASEAN members and numerous dialogue partners happy, or at least avoiding sticking points that will highlight disagreements, and the wide range of issues sure to be on the table.
“So, being the Asean Chair this year is not easy,” Chheang Vannarith said.