|ASEAN and its members want to be courted on their own merits and not as part of a scheme targeting China.
The planned ‘special summit’ between the U.S. and ASEAN scheduled for 28-29 March in Washington DC. has abruptly been postponed. According to the current ASEAN chair Cambodia, the reason was that ”some ASEAN leaders can’t join the meeting as scheduled”. Strangely, the US State Department has yet to comment on the postponement. This may not bode well for US-ASEAN relations or for the achievement of US goals for the meeting and in the region.
Most realize that the core US reason for the ‘special summit’ is China. Indeed, the U.S. has been trying for some time to enlist Southeast Asian nations support for its anti-China agenda. But this is not a one-way street and ASEAN has some leverage to get some of what it may want from the U.S. . As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, ASEAN is “essential to the architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.” So this upcoming summit was to be a great opportunity for ASEAN and its members to speak their minds and have their perspectives and concerns discussed and addressed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the summit –if held–was expected to discuss what have become routine topics like the crisis in Myanmar, pandemic recovery, climate change, and investment and infrastructure. But the U.S. would also likely raise the “China threat’ and probably try to use the Ukraine tragedy to rally them to join it in its anti-China Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.
The ‘new’ US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) warns that China is “combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.” It predicts that “our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world”.
The IPS intends to prevent China’s hegemony by building greater coordination with allies and partners “across war-fighting domains” to ensure allies can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form” including attempts to alter maritime boundaries or undermine the maritime rights of other nations. “We will focus security assistance on the Indo-Pacific, including building maritime capacity and maritime –domain awareness”. This summit was to be part of this US effort to build multilateral coordination vis a vis China.
But some ASEAN members do not see their participation in the US IPS as in their national security interests. Indeed, the U.S. does not seem to understand the diversity of ASEAN views on China as well as the overlap of their common concerns and preferences for relevant US actions.
ASEAN and its members are already wary of US-driven realpolitik strategic moves like AUKUS and the Quad that have been initiated to counter what the U.S sees as the ‘China threat’ to its hegemony in Asia. The U.S. and its allies had wanted to use ASEAN or some of its members as a bulwark and buffer against China. But they would not cooperate to the extent that the U.S. wanted. So the U.S. and its allies went around and over them to form these pacts. In doing so ASEAN has been weakened and split.
Moreover, US arrogance, asymmetrical self-interest and lack of credibility are obstacles to drawing them to its side. Like President Trump before him Mr. Biden’s insistence that they come to him seems to be logistically arrogant and self-serving. Indeed, rather than supporting ASEAN centrality as the US proclaims, this summit must be seen by some as US –centric– not ASEAN-centric. Perhaps that contributed to some ASEAN leaders insisting that it be postponed to a time more convenient to them.
Rather than stimulating a rush to align with the U.S., the lesson they have likely drawn from the tragedy of Ukraine is that they must maintain their neutrality between the two big powers. Otherwise they may become political pawns in the US-China ‘great game’ and be invaded by their land or maritime neighbor. Moreover if this happens, most do not believe that the U.S. will come riding to their rescue militarily.
More to the point, ASEAN members do not want to choose between the two. They want to “remain the masters of their own destiny”. They do not want to become puppets or surrogates for either one as happened during the Cold War. This can result in disaster when one great power assists in regime change because it considers the player to be on ‘the other side’.
Moreover, a choice is difficult because of competing individual national interests. While some may be more ideologically aligned with the U.S. and prefer its security protection, they have longer term economic and geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China – even with U.S. backing. Most want to be neutral and benefit from both. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi message to her fellow Foreign Ministers is ‘to maintain control we must remain steadfastly neutral and united.’ While there is little hope of the latter, remaining neutral is still possible. But as pressure mounts from both sides it will become ever more difficult. Nevertheless, if handled well they may be able to benefit economically from both and facilitate avoidance of military conflict in their region.
More generally, ASEAN and its members want to be courted on their own merits and not as part of some scheme targeting China.