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Major power competition constrains ASEAN ambitions

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United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and President Joe Biden attend the US-ASEAN Special Summit, Washington, United States, 13 May, 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Oliver Contreras)

In Brief

On the 45th anniversary of official US–ASEAN ties, US President Joe Biden hosted the leaders of Southeast Asian nations in May 2022 for a historic summit at the White House. The meeting’s aim was to signal a ‘new era’ in relations by reassuring ASEAN of its centrality at the ‘heart’ of Biden’s Asia strategy.


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Washington reinforced its commitment to a ‘meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial’ ASEAN–US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Some observers praised the meeting as a historic return of US steadfastness in diplomacy. But despite the high level of political symbolism, the summit also displayed the structural and normative differences that will continue to inhibit US–ASEAN relations.

The Biden administration aimed to demonstrate its ‘enduring commitment’ to ASEAN relations with a US$150 million package of initiatives to promote cooperation in areas such as pandemic recovery, digitisation and infrastructure. The intent was to signal a response to regional concerns about the need for economic diversification and greater opportunity for trade.

Biden promoted key parts of his proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to ASEAN leaders, including digital development and climate-smart infrastructure. But he avoided the thornier issues of whether ASEAN would be granted US market access and if ASEAN members could meet higher labour standards. As a result, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that the IPEF offered ‘not much substance yet’ for investment and trade.

In addition, 40 per cent of the US$150 million commitment has been allocated to maritime capacity building programs designed to counter China’s coast guard activities in the South China Sea. The programs aim to build on the Obama administration’s Maritime Awareness Initiative and seek to support the maritime component of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. While commendable, the remaining US$90 million pales in comparison to China’s 2021 pledge to deliver US$1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN over a three year period.

At the summit Biden also announced the nomination of a close national security aide, Yohannes Abraham, as US envoy to ASEAN. This position had been vacant since 2017.

But even Biden’s attempt at addressing this key US regional diplomatic shortfall was designed to ensure Washington’s voice in the region as opposed to addressing Southeast Asian economic interests. After the 2017 US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the 2022 enactment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China but not the United States, Washington has had less opportunity to show its presence and exert its interests in the region.

ASEAN’s muted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also showed the limits in alignment between ASEAN countries and the United States on questions of values and strategic interests. Despite Biden’s nudging of ASEAN leaders to take a firmer stance, Southeast Asian member states were reluctant to ‘meddle in whatever they are doing in Europe’. ASEAN’s primary principle of non-interference in any regime will be at odds with the US and its major Indo-Pacific allies such as Australia and Japan.

From Washington’s perspective, promoting democratic and liberal values fulfils its strategic and economic interests — as demonstrated by the concepts of the US-led ‘rules-based order’ and Japan’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. Democratic values that support the US-led economic order will be a continuing priority for the Biden administration, as shown by his Summit of Democracy and the troubled Summit of Americas.

As such, the presence of Southeast Asian dictators such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House led to criticism that Washington’s desire to check China’s influence in Southeast Asia could weaken US credibility to address democratic backsliding.

Overall, ASEAN’s desire to prioritise economic interests over the United States’ core interests of security and liberal values means that there will likely continue to be a limit to how comprehensive a US–ASEAN partnership can be. Washington is likely to turn to Indo-Pacific partners that have shown support for the ‘liberal order’. US attentiveness to ASEAN’s concerns will also likely remain subordinate to frameworks such as AUKUS and the Quad.

The growing divide within ASEAN over China’s behaviour in the South China Sea between claimants and non-claimants will also continue to preclude the United States from viewing ASEAN as the appropriate forum to address regional security concerns. ASEAN still lacks the capabilities and resources to be a provider of public security goods, including emerging technologies and vaccine distribution.

US interests will continue to remain at odds with ASEAN’s approach, which has been to balance China’s growing regional influence. For example, it has maintained weapons exports from Russia while continuing engagement with the United States as an offshore balancer in the first island chain.

As US–Russia and US–China strategic competition continues, so will Russia and China’s military and diplomatic alignment. Competition for the region’s support — which in part prompted the US–ASEAN summit — means that ASEAN is at risk of becoming reactive to major powers, rather than setting the terms for stability in its own region.

As evidenced by the summit’s outcomes, US–ASEAN relations will therefore likely remain limited in scope and action.

Dr Sheryn Lee is Senior Lecturer at the Swedish Defence University.

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