A herd of elephants in the room at US–ASEAN summit
12 May 2022|

In hindsight, perhaps ASEAN was too optimistic about the Biden presidency. Who could blame it? After four years of the Trump administration, the region was more than ready to return to deeper engagement with the United States. A survey of regional elites showed that confidence that the US would increase its engagement jumped from 9.9% in 2020 under Donald Trump to 68.6% under Joe Biden.

That optimism has dissipated amid Covid-19, the Myanmar crisis, the Ukraine war, supply chain disruptions, fears of stagflation and increasing food and energy insecurity.

This is the context in which ASEAN leaders, with the exception of Myanmar’s Min Aung Hlaing and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, will meet with Biden in a US–ASEAN special summit in Washington this week. It will only be ASEAN’s second in-person special summit with the US since 2017—and a symbolically important one, because its leaders met with China’s Xi Jinping last year in a special 30th commemorative summit of ASEAN–China relations.

ASEAN countries’ divergent positions on Ukraine and Russia, Myanmar and the South China Sea (and by extension, China’s behaviour) will make for challenging conversations with their US host.

On Ukraine, it will be difficult for the summit to find language that expresses a common understanding of the problem. ASEAN is in a bind, unable to go beyond the two joint statements it issued in March. As if they expected to face pressure in Washington to disinvite Russia, the current chairs of ASEAN (Cambodia), the G20 (Indonesia) and APEC (Thailand) pre-emptively issued a tripartite statement stating their determination to ‘work with all’ on their shared agendas.

Then there’s the Myanmar crisis, where the lack of progress in the implementation of the five-point consensus will be a pain point for ASEAN. The recent consultative meeting on humanitarian assistance to Myanmar (one element in the consensus deal) will be followed by an impromptu meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, called by Malaysia for the day before the White House summit. ASEAN Special Envoy Prak Sokhonn’s attempts to advance the other points of the consensus, including repeated requests to meet detained National League for Democracy leaders, have been rejected by the military junta.

On the South China Sea, the spotlight is on sweeping and competing claims made by claimant states, the risks of armed confrontation and progress in the negotiations on a code of conduct. These issues are by now a permanent feature in ASEAN meetings, and the usual expressions of support for upholding international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the pursuit of peaceful resolution of disputes, will likely form the key messages emerging from the summit on this issue.

Questions about ASEAN’s role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy and whether ASEAN (in part or in whole) will engage in the new Indo-Pacific economic framework hang over the meeting. The Biden administration’s success in more closely aligning its Indo-Pacific strategy with ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific will be critical to reassuring ASEAN of US respect for its centrality in the regional security architecture.

Meanwhile, the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its absence from Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership have left a vacuum in the region. The hope is that the administration’s Indo-Pacific economic framework will provide a counterweight to China’s growing economic influence, but the lack of political appetite in the US to engage economically is certain to disadvantage it strategically. There is moderate appeal in only some pillars of the framework on creating fair and resilient trade, improving supply chain resilience, driving infrastructure investment, assisting with decarbonisation and addressing tax and anticorruption, not all.

ASEAN countries are primarily looking for increased market access for exports—but the Biden administration has on more than one occasion said that its Indo-Pacific economic framework will not be designed in such a way that requires congressional approval. This means that increased market access and commitments are off the table, but ASEAN should still exercise creativity in economic discussions by suggesting inclusive work-arounds in areas like digital trade.

With the summit coinciding with the 45th anniversary of ASEAN–US relations, the US is expected to seek to elevate its strategic partnership with ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Such status was accorded to China and Australia in 2021, but it’s unlikely that ASEAN will immediately accede to the upgrade for a number of reasons. First, a process of consultation had to be undertaken with China over two years and with Australia for over a year before that status was granted. The same process must be followed with the US, at least for reasons of optical parity.

Second and more importantly, a comprehensive strategic partnership cannot simply be old wine in new skins. An upgrade is expected to show greater strategic alignment between the two partners and intensified cooperation in new and emerging areas.

With complex and divergent positions, both within ASEAN and between ASEAN and the US—on China, on Russia, on Myanmar, on trade—such alignment appears elusive for now.