Is the Biden Administration Serious About ‘ASEAN Centrality’?

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Is the Biden Administration Serious About ‘ASEAN Centrality’?

The term is used constantly, but there still seems to be little substance to U.S. interactions with the regional body.

Is the Biden Administration Serious About ‘ASEAN Centrality’?

U.S. President Joe Biden poses with leaders from the ASEAN member states at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, May 12, 2022.

Credit: Official White House photo

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly mentioned the notion of “ASEAN Centrality” when discussing Asia and the Indo-Pacific. From senior officials’ visits to Southeast Asian countries and Biden’s attendance at the 2021 U.S.-ASEAN summit and U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit (which was just ended), to even meetings with members of the Quad and AUKUS, the United States has reiterated that it recognizes and respects the central role of ASEAN and will firmly uphold the principle of “ASEAN Centrality.” More importantly, the current administration has also committed to reflect ASEAN’s central role in its vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

Adherence to “ASEAN Centrality” has seemingly become a major pillar of the U.S. policy toward Asia and even the whole Indo-Pacific. Scholars, notably Amitav Acharya and Tan See Seng, have unpacked the notion by offering multiple layers of meanings. The general consensus is that this “centrality” refers to the role of ASEAN as a regional leader or driver, convenor or facilitator, hub or key node, and an agent of progress in Asia’s regional cooperation. It also means that ASEAN, in particular its “ASEAN Way,” provides a model for other subregional groupings in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

To what extent do the Biden administration’s practices reflect the general understanding of “ASEAN Centrality”?

The Biden administration’s approach to Southeast Asia so far reflects the three meanings of “ASEAN Centrality” as mentioned above. First, by publicly supporting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), the Biden administration respects, if not recognizes, ASEAN’s ability to set the agenda for regional cooperation. This does not mean that ASEAN has the capability to drive the United States’ regional agenda, but ASEAN does have influence on how the U.S. implements its own regional strategy.

The second meaning is ASEAN as a key node. The U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit that just concluded is historic – not only because a summit of this kind has not been held since 2016, but also because it marked the first time that leaders of ASEAN member states were invited to the U.S. capital as a group. In addition, during the period of the Special Summit, Biden’s decision not to hold bilateral meetings with any of these Southeast Asian leaders further reinforced the idea that his team is trying to treat ASEAN as a whole and thus as a key node for Washington to deepen a cluster of relationships in the region. By participating in the virtual summit held last October, organizing an in-person special summit, and meeting these leaders as a group rather than bilaterally, Biden and his team have taken important steps in treating ASEAN as an institutional collective.

The third dimension of Biden’s practice of “ASEAN Centrality” is treating ASEAN as an important platform for communication. Last year, Biden and his colleagues attended several dialogues and forums that were proposed and hosted by ASEAN. Biden himself attended the virtual East Asia Summit (EAS), Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended the ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. All these examples of participation, led by the president himself and top U.S. officials, indicate that the current U.S. government recognizes ASEAN as a convenor and facilitator in regional affairs, which provides important meeting places for countries in the region. Like Biden said in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit last year, the United States treats ASEAN centrality as “a linchpin for maintaining the resilience, the prosperity, and security of our shared region.”

It seems that Biden administration has taken concrete steps and thus is making progress in safeguarding its commitment to “ASEAN Centrality.” However, there are concerns that these steps are more symbolic than practical. For instance, take the amount of investment that the United States promised to put in its relationship with ASEAN: Whether $102 million as announced last year or $150 million as announced just days ago, the amount is too small, especially compared to China’s $1.5 billion aid pledge to ASEAN and the United States’ own $40 billion in aid to Ukraine. Besides, the United States did not announce details of its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) during the just-ended U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. That will only reinforce the message that ASEAN is not yet treated as a fulcrum for economic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

There are other dynamics in the Biden administration’s approach undermining its efforts toward “ASEAN Centrality.”

First, the Biden administration has not yet appointed an ambassador to ASEAN. That may send the impression that the United States is not taking the collective needs of the ASEAN member states seriously enough.

Second, although there have been two summits between the United States and ASEAN as a whole, the Biden administration’s engagements with Southeast Asia so far have been mostly conducted bilaterally. Although both Blinken and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel J. Kritenbrink have visited Indonesia, home of the ASEAN Secretariat, only Kritenbrink paid a (very quick) visit to the ASEAN Secretariat and met with the secretary-general of ASEAN, Dato Lim Jock Hoi. Even so, the read-out indicates that the meeting was a symbolic gesture, lacking any substance. Interacting with the ASEAN Secretariat, the representative of ASEAN as an entity, has not been on the U.S. agenda.

Third and probably more importantly, the Biden administration has been actively developing several minilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific, especially the Quad. Although U.S. officials have reiterated that they support ASEAN Centrality when meeting with their counterparts in Australia, Japan, and India, Southeast Asian countries are still worried that the Quad may result in the marginalization of ASEAN in the region.

Besides, in the Indo-Pacific Strategy released this February, the United States makes clear that it will explore opportunities for the Quad to work with ASEAN. However, it sounds like the U.S. approach will be a “Quad plus” architecture in the Indo-Pacific rather than an “ASEAN plus” framing. In other words, it seems that the United States is trying to integrate ASEAN into a Quad-based framework of regional cooperation rather than fitting the Quad into the existing ASEAN-centered regional architecture. It is noteworthy to see how the United States will address the worries from ASEAN at the upcoming Quad leaders’ summit, which will be held just over a week after Biden’s meeting with ASEAN leaders.

All in all, the Biden administration has taken important steps in supporting the centrality of ASEAN, among which its efforts to invite ASEAN leaders as a group for an in-person summit is noteworthy. However, issues remain. On the one hand, these efforts may be more symbolic than practical. On the other, many of the activities conducted by the Biden administration so far have only created more doubts on its seriousness of upholding ASEAN Centrality As a result, there is still a long way for Biden and his team to persuade Southeast Asian counterparts to believe that Washington is serious about “ASEAN Centrality” and its relationship with ASEAN as a whole.