ASEAN-US Summit 2022 – The Return of the United States to Southeast Asia


Zokhri Idris, Ph.D
23 May 2022 09:52am
US President Joe Biden with Asian leaders including Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob (second from right) attending the US-Asean special summit, at the White House on May 12. (Source: EPA)
US President Joe Biden with Asian leaders including Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob (second from right) attending the US-Asean special summit, at the White House on May 12. (Source: EPA)

The Asean-US Summit took place 12 and May 13 this year. Asean leaders, apart from Myanmar were invited by the President of the US to Washington for a Special Summit to celebrate the 45th year of ASEAN-US Dialogue.

It should be noted as well that this is the second Special Summit since 2016 vis-à-vis the fact of the 45th year of dialogue relationship between Asean and the US.

Referring to Asean’s official statement, the Special Summit aims ‘to intensify cooperation in various areas, including Covid-19 response and global health security, climate change, sustainable development, maritime cooperation, human capital development, education, and people-to-people ties, as well as connectivity and economic engagement.”

As the pandemic is soon to become world’s history to be remembered, other critical areas above-mentioned remained a priority to Asean as well as to other nations, including the United States.

In February this year, the Biden-Harris administration launched Indo-Pacific Strategy, re-affirming US’ presence in the Indo-Pacific.

US presence in the last five years was not consistent with President Trump’s inward nationalism to give priority to domestic matters of the US above anything else.

It distorts the Obama administration’s effort in pivoting to Asia from 2008 to 2016. It can be felt that the US has no sustainable viewpoint on the importance of Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Regardless of how one sees US commitment to the Indo-Pacific, we could not deny that the Indo-Pacific Strategy is crafted to undermine China in this modern big powers competition era.

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Therefore, Asean-US Summit is placed as one of the enablers of the grand Indo-Pacific Strategy along with a trilateral security pack between Australia, United Kingdom and the US (AUKUS), a free and open indo-pacific (FOIP), and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). IPEF will be further consolidated during President Biden’s first trip to Tokyo and Seoul.

It is important to study the response of Asean leaders toward the Special Summit.

In its Joint Vision Statement, Asean leaders remind the stance of the region as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality.

Asean is abiding by international laws and sends a clear message that it wants an outlook that is peaceful and mutual respect. In this respect, Bali Principles serve as guidance.

Asean will not take sides in the superpower competition as the region remains steadfast in its development goals since its establishment.

The fact that the Joint Vision Statement begins with a gentle reminder of what Asean is all about and how will it appear in the near future sends a clear message to all countries that the region remains neutral to all factions of power, at the same time will cooperate with any nation-state in advancing its development agenda.

At current, Asean offers an 8-priority focus considering post-pandemic implications to its member states.

Asean looks forward to building better health security, strengthening economic ties and connectivity, promoting maritime cooperation, enhancing people-to-people connectivity, supporting sub-regional development, leveraging technologies and innovation, addressing climate change, preserving peace and building trust.

Certainly, these are big challenges for Asean, and they cannot be achieved by not inviting sincere outside nation states to support Asean's priority focus.

The next 12 months are critical to Asean as the region is combating post-pandemic ramifications, which are manifested through its eight-priority focus. Asean could not afford any external shocks which further exacerbated its efforts to work around priority focus.

Having established an eight-priority focus for Asean, some short-term and long-term implications of the Asean-US Special Summit are worth to be studied.

In the short-term, USD $150 million could be a booster to advance regional work in the region.

It signifies the importance of the Southeast Asia region to Washington and opens many doors of collaboration between MNCs, organisations, non-governmental organisations in the region as well as in the US.

As a strategic partner, the US could play certain strategic roles, which include funding Asean’s development goals.

The size of funding should not be questioned as Asean needs any single size of funding as we speak.

Though, it should be argued that roles of a strategic partner need to be further refined, to avoid unnecessary tension within Asean as well as Asean’s relationship with China.

In the long term, it is still unclear how the U.S. will keep on assisting the region.

While Washington is also projecting presence and significance to eastern Europe and to the Middle East, the dynamic in Asia is still puzzling Washington in the years to come.

As argued, US presence in Southeast Asia has not been consistent which creates a lot of gaps in determining the relationship between the two. Should the US presence is to curb China’s rising, the Southeast Asia region will be utilised as buffer zone to limit China, which in the end, does not bring actual benefit to Asean countries.

The US will also be having struggles to accept Asean’s dynamic in terms of governance and political system.

Asean houses a wide range of political system from left to right, as well as diverse versions of democracies.

At the same time, Asean is bringing everyone into the boat and making sure no one is left behind.

Rooms of engagement are always made available in Asean and this will not change in the near future.

In conclusion, Asean-US Special Summit should not be evaluated at its face value.

Behind all its rhetoric and official statements, we should be critical of how the Summit further implicates Malaysia and other Asean countries.

Asean could not afford to be at a juncture, in choosing its alignment to any superpower or any country for that matter.

At this moment, we need to mitigate the superpowers' infusion into the region smartly.

In the end, Asean policymakers need to ascertain, how exactly important Asean is to the US?

Dr Zokhri Idris holds a Ph.D in International Relations from Korea University. He aspires to become a prominent scholar, a strategist, and an influencer of Modern Leadership and Diplomacy in the context of International Relations. His area of interest also includes China’s geo-political behaviourism as a current global shift.

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