ASEAN/US summit postponement raises serious questions for ASEAN about relations with US and China

Mar 23, 2022
ASEAN countries - map and flags.
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.

Their preference is for an emphasis on economic assistance. The decline in US soft power in the region accelerated when Trump withdrew the U.S. from its proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) –a major economic pact that the Obama administration had proposed and persuaded Southeast Asian countries to join. At the time, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong summed up the frustration of many Southeast Asian leaders when he declared “How can anyone believe in you anymore?” The most important single thing the U.S. could do to appeal to ASEAN members would be to lead and coordinate a multinational effort of economic assistance in a strategic manner focusing on needs defined by the recipients.

ASEAN and its members would also like the U.S. to lessen its emphasis on military power and its forward projection. They do not want a military conflict between the U.S. and China. Moreover, they fear proxy wars and interference in their political affairs by one or the other or both.

Finally, the U.S. should lighten up on its ideological approach. Most ASEAN members do not subscribe to US democratic values as was embarrassingly illustrated by the exclusion of seven of the ten ASEAN members including strategic partner Singapore from the US Summit for Democracy. Indeed, the U.S., in its appeal to ‘common values’, seems to be saying ‘you are either with us or against us’, and if pushed on this issue most are ‘against’ in terms of values. Even for the three US-deemed democracies, the leaders’ priority is staying in power and this takes precedence over such idealistic considerations.

ASEAN needs to seek common ground among its members – or a significant core – as to specifically what it wants and does not want from America and then forcefully communicate it.

If the U.S. is serious about rebuilding its respect, trust and confidence in the region, it has to do so step by step in a manner that demonstrates a genuine concern for the region’s preferred future and its willingness to help it achieve it on Southeast Asia’s terms—with respect for its views and certainly not by hard power alone. It can start with agreeing to a summit agenda, dates and a venue more convenient to them.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.


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