While the United States government has recently been focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, it continues to place a strong emphasis on engagement with the Asia-Pacific. The White House has announced that President Joe Biden will host a special summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on May 12-13 in Washington, to demonstrate the U.S. government’s enduring commitment to the Southeast Asian bloc.
The U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit will officially commemorate 45 years of U.S.-ASEAN relations and is an opportunity for Washington to forge a closer bilateral partnership with the regional bloc and counter China’s growing influence in the region. According to a statement from current ASEAN chair Cambodia, Biden and his Southeast Asian counterparts will discuss several key topics, such as COVID-19, global health security, climate change, and sustainable development. It is also expected that Biden and ASEAN leaders will exchange views on regional and international issues of common interest and concern.
The Russia-Ukraine War
The ongoing war in Ukraine will be at the top of the agenda at the upcoming summit. In March, ASEAN Foreign Ministers released a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire without naming “Russia” or using the word “invasion.” ASEAN has since clarified its position, saying that it does not support the use of force. Singapore is the only ASEAN country that has imposed sanctions on Russia while the remaining nine member states have taken a very cautious approach.
As ASEAN member states react differently to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden will try to press his ASEAN counterparts to condemn and take stronger actions against Russia, including joining the U.S.-led international sanctions campaign. However, most ASEAN countries are unlikely to take any further move against Russia, as the bloc continues to urge the parties involved to resolve the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy. Russia still has strong bilateral ties with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia and remains the region’s leading arms supplier. Biden should not expect much from the regional bloc, which will not join the U.S.-led efforts to isolate or punish Russia for its action in Ukraine.
Conflict in Myanmar
The ongoing political crisis in Myanmar has led to a severe deterioration in the country’s humanitarian situation, with no end in sight. Since the military junta seized control of the country in February 2021, there have been mass killings, large-scale protests, and armed resistance. However, ASEAN has not been able to bring about a breakthrough in the country’s intensifying conflict. The Five-Point Consensus reached between the ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has not seen any significant progress since its adoption in April last year, largely due to the junta’s lack of cooperation.
Cambodia, as ASEAN chair for 2022, has renewed engagements with the junta, as when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn visited Myanmar in January and March, respectively. Despite these efforts, the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate. The Biden administration is likely to attempt to persuade the ASEAN leaders to abandon their failed consensus approach and seek greater cooperation with other countries to take tougher actions, such as sanctions, against the military junta. Once again, however, it is likely to get nowhere if the majority of the bloc continues to stick to its long-standing policy of “non-interference.”
Although the global pandemic situation has stabilized, measures to prevent future consequences are still necessary. COVID-19 remains one of the main agendas to be discussed at the upcoming summit. While the world recovers from the pandemic, future COVID-19 variants may still possibly cause another huge wave. The U.S. and ASEAN will further seek to maintain close cooperation in their fight against COVID-19. While China’s “zero COVID” strategy is unpopular in the region, Biden will persuade the ASEAN leaders to switch their COVID-19 response strategies to be more aligned with that of the U.S.
Each of the Southeast Asian countries has vaccinated more than 59 percent of their populations as of April 29, except for Myanmar due to its ongoing political instability. The U.S. and the ASEAN leaders should foster closer collaboration and partnership in enhancing the global health system and preparing a more comprehensive response to possible newly discovered variants. The U.S. may also continue donating more vaccines to regional countries to aid their recovery from the pandemic.
Maritime Security Cooperation
As the U.S. aims to advance its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” it seeks to strengthen maritime cooperation with countries in the region to maintain regional peace and stability, particularly in the disputed South China Sea. In 2019, the first ASEAN-U.S. Maritime Exercise (AUMX) was held between the U.S. and the regional bloc.
For Washington, AUMX provided an opportunity to engage with ASEAN as a whole and to contain China’s maritime ambitions. The upcoming summit will be an opportunity for Biden to promote greater maritime cooperation with the regional bloc, including maritime exercises, training, and information sharing.
However, the U.S. president will still face some level of resistance as the bloc tries to navigate between Washington and Beijing. The AUKUS security pact, which is largely seen as another U.S. strategy to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region, has raised serious concerns among some ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, who have said that it could lead to a major arms race in the region. As the AUKUS partnership expands into the development of hypersonic weapons, Biden will use the summit to reassure his ASEAN counterparts of the continuing U.S. commitment to regional peace and stability.
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. distanced itself from its Asian partners, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while China’s economic influence continued to grow in the region. The Biden administration will push for the advancement of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to restore the trust and confidence in its leadership in the region.
As part of promoting the FOIP Strategy, the newly established Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) will serve as an economic tool for the U.S. to increase its economic presence in the region vis-à-vis the growing influence of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which involves China, ASEAN, and four other Asia-Pacific nations. With IPEF, the U.S. aims to regain the support, trust, and confidence from its Asian allies.
It is important to note that the IPEF will cover four pillars: trade facilitation, supply chain resilience, infrastructure and decarbonization, and taxation and anti-corruption. However, given the sheer breadth of the IPEF, the Biden administration might face some difficulties in advancing particular forms of economic cooperation. The term “framework” itself shows the unclear direction and future prospects of the IPEF.
During the upcoming summit, Biden is expected to explain the concept of the IPEF in detail and seek support from his ASEAN counterparts in the implementation of the framework. In terms of fostering shared growth, the regional bloc will welcome any initiative with open arms if it creates economic growth and prosperity. However, ASEAN should be cautious about the hidden agenda of the growing superpower competition, which could possibly undermine its centrality.
As the U.S. seeks to advance its new Indo-Pacific strategy, the regional bloc should focus more on economic cooperation rather than security alliances at the upcoming summit.