United States courting the Southeast Asia region

Nik Luqman Wan Zainoddin
27 May 2022 03:37pm
US President Joe Biden (left) joined by Asean leaders in exchanging views on regional and global issues during Asean-US Special Summit at the State Department in Washington D.C., on Friday (local time). File photo - BERNAMA
US President Joe Biden (left) joined by Asean leaders in exchanging views on regional and global issues during Asean-US Special Summit at the State Department in Washington D.C., on Friday (local time). File photo - BERNAMA
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After a tumultuous scheduling arrangement and even on the brink of a last-minute cancellation, the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders finally convened in Washington D.C. for the Asean-US special summit last week. Indeed, this summitry was a watershed moment for both Asean leaders and US President Joe Biden.

For one, the convening reassures the Biden administration’s continued engagement in the Southeast Asia region amidst geopolitical flux and competition from China.

And by extension, this summit strengthens Asean centrality which posits the regional bloc as a key driver in shaping the regional framework among major partners.

Moreover, at the time when the Ukraine crisis drags on, the Washington meeting has also managed to dispel lingering concerns over strategic neglect as the conflict has absorbed much of the strategic bandwidth in the West.

The timing of this summit is of paramount to both sides too, given that they are celebrating the 45th anniversary of Asean-US Dialogue Relations, which partly explains the elevation of diplomatic status to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. To date, only Australia and China are accorded such stature.

Despite the packed two-day summit, both Asean and the US leaders managed to produce a joint statement, which invariably reflects fresh development on the ground and abroad.

On the political-security front, both sides shared a number of security concerns. Among others, both sides reaffirmed their “respect for sovereignty, political independence, and the territorial integrity” of Ukraine, the need to expedite “the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea” and the urgent “implementation of the Five-Point Consensus” in the Myanmar crisis.

Apart from this, both sides also discussed on the economic front intending to strengthen economic ties through the Asean-US Trade and Investment Framework as well as other US multilateral initiatives.

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In further deepening economic cooperation, the Biden administration has also announced US$150 million packages for Southeast Asia.

Interestingly, what is worth noting here is the lion’s share of US$60 million, more than half of the total package will be dedicated to maritime security cooperation, which will be led by the US Coast Guard (USCG). This development is seen as a thinly-veiled jab at China’s maritime activities in the South China Sea.

Currently, Asean and China are in the midst of negotiating the Code of Conduct, otherwise known as COC, an upgraded version of the DOC to manage the overall stability in the strategic waterway.

Also, the recently-announced package would complement the earlier unilateral commitment made by the US. During the virtual Asean-US Summit in 2021, Biden administration announced that the US would inject US$102 million which will be delivered through various Asean’s own institutions for areas of cooperation ranging from clean energy, infrastructure, and education.

Furthermore, the Biden administration has also named the US ambassador to Asean, which caught surprise by many. This is given the fact that the seat has been vacant since Trump’s administration in 2017, which flagged concern in Asean capitals on US’ commitment to the region.

The US designate-envoy, Yohannes Abraham, who previously served as chief of staff to the White House National Security Council would be stationed in Jakarta where the Asean Secretariat is located in. Indirectly, this would allow the US representative to be able to feel the pulse in the region instantly. This is an essential order for the US in its bid to win the hearts and minds of the Southeast Asian partners.

Regarding the Indo-Pacific vision, the Asean leaders have also indicated interests in areas such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation that would be in synergy with the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

Indeed, this workstream could also be further streamlined with other extra-regional partners' versions of Indo-Pacific, including the European Union (EU), France, Japan, and India, thus promoting further trust and cooperation. It is expected that many of these initiatives to be ironed out at the upcoming Asean summit in November.

The much-vaunted Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which is led by the US, would also probably be put a final stamp, soon after fuller details are unveiled at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting in Tokyo next week.

As of now, the IPEF delves into enhancing cooperation in digital economies, resilient supply chains, and climate change.

As it may, the Asean-US economic relations are at a state of deep and comprehensive. In 2020, bilateral trade reached US$360 billion, with the US companies among the top sources of greenfield investment in the region.

Even prior to the summit in Washington D.C. last week, the Biden administration deployed top cabinet members across the region – Vice-President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in efforts to recalibrate strategic relations with fellow Asean member states.

Indeed, this is nothing but a testament to Asean’s strategic position as the gravity attraction of great powers. Its accepted customs of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus) provide the avenue for great powers to meet and consult. To put in the words of the late Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former Asean secretary-general, Asean is invariably a fulcrum for major countries to exchange views and make peace.

In retrospect, Asean was established at the peak of communism and always committed to project the Southeast Asia region as a neutral zone.

At time of intense such as the Cold War, which then had spill over effect to the region, Asean made a declaration that the Southeast Asia region as “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality” (ZOPFAN) in 1971.

Even with today’s heightened competition between the US and China, Asean has consistently maintained that the bloc remains neutral.

Indeed, the recently concluded Asean-US summitry conveys the world of the bloc’s goodwill. And it takes all to play a crucial part in ensuring peace and prosperity in the region.

Nik Luqman Wan Zainoddin is an analyst and freelance writer focused on Southeast Asia. Previously he was attached to the Institute of International and Malaysian Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia (UKM)-Nippon Foundation as a research fellow. He tweets at @NLuqman.