Biden got his ASEAN promises right—now for the delivery
1 Jun 2022|

This month’s US–ASEAN Special Summit hosted by President Joe Biden in Washington was a symbolically significant and necessary step towards giving Southeast Asian states what they want: respect on their own terms and backing for their economic development and security interests. This was done with a nod to their cherished principle of ‘ASEAN centrality’ in regional affairs and determination not expressly to side with the US over China. But the Biden administration will need to deliver on the commitments outlined in the event’s joint statement if all parties are to secure what they really desire: a demonstrable recommitment to a constructive US counterbalance to China in the region.

Just holding the US–ASEAN event, which every ASEAN leader attended bar Myanmar’s junta boss Min Aung Hlaing and The Philippines’ outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, was vital for the Biden administration. It came on the heels of the ASEAN–China Special Summit ‘to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN–China Dialogue’ in Brunei in November. The symbolism of that event was laid on thick, especially the announcement that the parties had agreed to elevate their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership ‘that is meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial’.

Superficially, therefore, the Washington summit played catch-up, not least because Biden’s predecessor had shown little regard for the region and its principal institution. Donald Trump conspicuously failed to attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2018 and 2019 (after leaving the 2017 meeting early). And while he ostensibly sought to make up for this by inviting ASEAN leaders to a special summit in early 2020, his choice of venue—Las Vegas—was at best impolitic given that three of the ASEAN states have mainly Muslim populations for whom gambling is forbidden. The pandemic put paid to that event and to any prospect of Trump attending another EAS in person. This contrasted with Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, who attended every EAS during his presidency after the US joined, bar one.

After a sluggish start due in part to other priorities such as the Afghanistan imbroglio, the Biden administration has increasingly focused attention on East Asia in general and Southeast Asia specifically. The summit came on the back of a welter of trips by senior US officials to the region in 2021, among them Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and, most recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who collectively visited the six principal ASEAN states of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Biden was evidently intent on using the summit to reinforce the message that his administration understood ASEAN’s complaints of neglect, and that it was determined to rectify this. He underscored this by nominating a close aide, National Security Council chief of staff Yohannes Abraham, as US ambassador to ASEAN. If Abraham’s appointment is confirmed, it will grant ASEAN a more direct conduit to the US president than China’s ASEAN ambassador, a relatively low-level career diplomat, likely offers to Xi Jinping.

The summit’s duration and range of issues and meetings afforded opportunities to accentuate the extent of US involvement in the region and explore future paths. These included a working lunch with Harris covering maritime cooperation and pandemic issues, and a subsequent session on climate action and infrastructure; another working lunch with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders; and a meeting involving Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, Trade representative Katherine Tai and leading business figures.

That Biden only attended two of the summit’s six events (including a state dinner) generated some grumbles and sparked unflattering comparisons with Obama’s more attentive actions at the last US–ASEAN Special Summit in 2016. But with war raging in Europe and economies around the world (including his own) hit with multiple pandemic- and Ukraine-related challenges, the US president might be excused for attending to a few other issues too.

This focus on practical engagement was also evident in the summit’s ‘Joint Vision Statement’ (JVS), especially when contrasted with the joint statement released after the ASEAN–China Special Summit, a largely platitudinous screed containing some commitments that the ASEAN states would have known Beijing was unlikely ever to honour, particularly on the South China Sea and nuclear disarmament. Although replete with its own necessary bromides, the JVS is noteworthy for its lengthy detailing of initiatives, programs and work plans spanning a myriad of fields.

Especially noteworthy are the prominence of current and future US–ASEAN cooperation on pandemic recovery and resilience detailed in the statement’s first clause; two lengthy clauses detailing Mekong-related cooperation—a subject barely touched on with China, whose use of the river system has been detrimental to downstream states—and the heavy emphasis on maritime cooperation covering everything from improved maritime domain awareness to efforts to curb illegal fishing (contentious between China and some ASEAN states, and between different member states).

Other notable points of difference highlight how the divergent interests of the US and China in the region shaped their summit security agendas. Both Myanmar and North Korea are covered at some length in the JVS. Both are absent from the China document.

Other aspects reflect the administration’s Democrat priorities. Besides a whole section on climate change and ‘energy transition and resilience’, the issues of gender equity and equality and the ‘rights of persons with disabilities’ are addressed in terms of US support for ‘ASEAN-Led mechanisms’. Unsurprisingly, neither issue was evidently part of the ASEAN–China talks.

A more unfortunate Democrat trait Biden displayed was poor public messaging, specifically on his announcement of new funding totalling a mere US$150 million to ‘mobilize billions more in private financing’. Irrespective of whether such funding could achieve this, the announcement unsurprisingly sparked derision and criticism for its apparent parsimony. As the White House and others have explained, however, the new funding represents only a fraction of many billions of US investment and development assistance that have poured into the region, and which has dwarfed China’s investment and aid commitments.

The other area arousing more legitimate doubt and disappointment among ASEAN observers is the section on ‘Strengthening Economic Ties and Connectivity’. Much of it is banal, offering vague commitments to ‘prosperity and development in the United States’ and to cooperating ‘to promote trade and investment and facilitating resilient global supply chains and seamless regional connectivity’, all of which beg more questions than they hint at answering. In this respect, the contrast between the JVS and the ASEAN–China statement, with its many iterations of various trade agreements and economic master plans, highlights the US failure since Trump to entertain the idea of free-trade agreements with regional economies that would boost US market access and investment, and redounds strikingly to its disadvantage.

For this reason, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) initiative Biden launched on the sidelines of his visit to Tokyo for the Quad leaders’ meeting last week represented the main missing piece in the US–ASEAN puzzle. What sort of picture that piece helps complete remains unclear, however, above all on the trade front. The IPEF’s quest to ‘build high-standard, inclusive, free, and fair trade commitments and develop new and creative approaches in trade and technology policy’ sounds laudable. But even those that have quickly signed up to launching ‘collective consultations toward future negotiations’ on the IPEF, including the seven leading ASEAN economies, must be wondering how and if any of it will boost their access to US consumers or direct more US development finance to them. The ASEANs will expect the benefits of membership to equate with those that existing agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Belt and Road Initiative promise to deliver.

Notwithstanding this qualification, the Washington summit will largely have met the principal objective of both parties, as its central announcement indicates most figuratively. They committed to elevating the relationship to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial’. Biden could at least wave his counterparts goodbye in the knowledge that his gestures were respectful of ASEAN’s interests and, in some areas, indicative of Washington’s tangible commitments to the region’s security and prosperity. And nothing better signals that ASEAN’s leaders could return home still comfortably positioned between Washington and Beijing than a partnership announced with the same adjectives used in announcing ASEAN’s comprehensive strategic partnership with China.