The ASEAN-US summit: rhetoric versus reality

May 23, 2022
ASEAN flags
ASEAN wants the U.S. to make its actions consistent with its rhetoric of supporting ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs. Image: Pixabay

When the US-ASEAN Summit was first announced, there were great expectations on both sides. However fond hopes foundered on the rocks of reality.

When the US-ASEAN Summit was first announced, there were great expectations on both sides. But after a postponement due to disagreements on dates, Kurt Campbell, czar and architect of US Asia Policy, quipped “We just hope they show up.” The leaders of Myanmar and the Philippines did not but the rest did come. However fond hopes foundered on the rocks of reality.

The U.S. wanted to win over ASEAN and its members to its side in its struggle with China for regional domination. ASEAN wanted to extract robust US commitments to its regional centrality in political and economic affairs as well as to actions that demonstrate that the US interest in it will not fade in favor of Europe.

Some had hoped that the U.S. would court ASEAN for its own merits rather than as a pawn in its strategic struggle with China for regional dominance. But the summit did little to dispel their concern.

The highlight of the meeting was an agreement to establish a US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The U.S. needed this to place its relations with ASEAN on the same level as that of ASEAN’s with China. Ironically this symbolized their intensifying competition for ASEAN’s hearts and minds. But it is unclear what this new formality will mean in practice.

The U.S. has previously made its intentions crystal clear. The goal of its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) is to prevent China’s regional hegemony by building greater coordination with allies and partners “across war-fighting domains” to ensure allies can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form_.” This means that its success depends on a US-centric network of security allies and partners and their willingness to go along with it in confronting China. The summit was part of this US effort to build a united front against China.

But ASEAN and the U.S. have fundamentally different visions for the region. The U.S. vision of an implicitly anti-China, security-oriented Free and Open Indo-Pacific contrasts with ASEAN’s inclusive [including China], more economic, less militaristic Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN hopes the US and China can coexist and refrain from raising tensions that hurt them.

ASEAN wants the U.S. to make its actions consistent with its rhetoric of supporting ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs. ‘Centrality’ here “refers to the role of ASEAN as a regional leader or driver, convenor or facilitator, hub or key node_ _”. US President Joe Biden declared that “strengthening the US relationship with ASEAN is “at the very heart of [US] foreign policy strategy”. Perhaps that is so. But the goal of that strategy is to constrain and contain China and that is not necessarily in the interests of ASEAN or its members.

ASEAN and its members were 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 went around and over ASEAN to form these pacts. In doing so ASEAN has been split and weakened.

The Joint Vision Statement issued by the meeting reflects these contradictions. It is remarkable more for what is missing or left ambiguous rather than included and clear. The parties agreed to “appropriately [emphasis added] cooperate in international and regional fora”. But what is ‘inappropriate’ cooperation? Clearly, either or both had reservations regarding certain types of cooperation . But which types and why?

They declared that they “look forward to further strengthening cooperation including through relevant initiatives or frameworks of the United States or ASEAN.” This ambiguity appears to reflect real differences or uncertainties as to which side should take the initiative on what issues. For example, the U.S. seems to want to fit ASEAN in to the ‘Quad”—the ad hoc security dialogue between India, Japan Australia and the U.S.. But ASEAN centrality means its security architecture and forums should take precedence and the Quad should take direction from them. Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, this meeting was still all about China and the U.S. effort to form a united front against it.

ASEAN wants the U.S. to place more emphasis on US-ASEAN economic relations. Indeed, 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.

Yet it missed the opportunity to announce its long awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). It was not even mentioned in the Joint Vision Statement. This only reinforced the notion that “ASEAN is not a fulcrum for US economic co-operation in the Indo-Pacific”. Moreover there is concern that the IPEF will be focused on issues more important to the U.S. and its strategy to contain China rather than ASEAN members’ urgent needs. Because of the ephemeral nature of previous US commitments to Asia like the ‘pivot’, there is suspicion that the IPEF will not outlast the Biden administration. This concern was reinforced by the US announcement of a paltry US 150 million aid pledge, including 60 million for US Coast Guard assistance in training, presence and equipment to ASEAN countries. This will increase maritime domain awareness that is to the U.S. advantage in its long term struggle against China. The total is ridiculously small compared to China’s 1.5 billion aid pledge and the many US billions in aid to Ukraine.

As another example of US centrism, the US managed to insert in the Joint Vision Statement its concern with “ensuring “freedom of navigation and over flight and other lawful uses of the seas”. The latter is code for asserting what it considers to be its right to undertake provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes against China.

Perhaps the most egregious US hypocrisy in the Joint Vision Statement is “we support ASEAN’s efforts to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a nuclear weapon free zone_ _as enshrined in the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty. In addition to frequently transporting nuclear weapons through the region, the U.S. has declined to become a party. Meanwhile China has declared that it is ready to sign—apparently in response to the AUKUS agreement which will likely bring more nuclear powered and nuclear weapon capable submarines into the region.

On the interpersonal level, Mr. Biden declined bilateral meetings with the leaders. His administration claimed this was to emphasize that he was meeting with ASEAN as an institution. Given that they had traveled half way around the world to meet him, I suspect some were miffed.

A major flaw in this approach is that ASEAN is not united on political issues. This is clearly demonstrated by its members’ diverse responses to the crisis in Myanmar and Ukraine and even to China’s behavior in the South China Sea. They are only united in that they do not want to be forced to choose between China and the U.S.. Indeed, they do not want to become puppets or designated proxies for either one as happened during the US-Soviet Union Cold War with disastrous results for some of them—like Vietnam. But it is not clear from this summit that the U.S. will help them avoid that fate.

This piece first appeared in the Asia Times.

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