Southeast Asian leaders head to Washington DC this week for a summit with US President Joe Biden, who virtually attended the previous ASEAN summit here from the White House in Washington DC in October 2021.
Nicholas Kamm | Afp | Getty Images
In the midst of the war in Ukraine, is Washington’s top foreign policy priority, President Joe Biden receives Southeast Asian leaders in Washington — signaling the US’s commitment to the region where it is embroiled in a struggle for dominance with China.
Some critical issues – such as the post-Covid economy revival, climate change and Myanmar’s coup — will be on the table at the two-day meeting starting Thursday. Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a bloc of 10 countries that make up the seventh largest economy in the world, will attend.
Security issues are likely to come up during the summit, Ong Keng Yong, former ASEAN secretary general, told CNBC.
“It is inevitable that geopolitical and international security issues will be raised and discussed, but I do not expect dramatic steps in this regard,” Ong said, adding: “The US needs to be more present in Southeast Asian countries.”
The White House has said the summit will “demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to ASEAN and 45 years of US-ASEAN relations.”
The US has often emphasized the “centrality of ASEAN” in its Indo Pacific strategy to contain China. This emphasis gives the region — populated by countries that don’t want to openly choose between the US and China — some bargaining power.
Ong, who is also Singapore’s general ambassador, said Asia offered enough to keep the US engaged despite its preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. “Since the end of World War II, it has been clear that Europe is coming first to the US, ahead of any other region in the world,” he said.
“Nevertheless, the people of ASEAN believe that American resilience and vitality will find the Asian side of the Pacific something valuable to work with and to secure the US’s prosperity in the future.”
“ASEAN would like to see an economic framework with some concessions and a clearer regional security strategy, especially regarding the South China Sea,” a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Joshua Kurlantzick, told CNBC .
Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, published in February, states that Washington will explore opportunities for the Quad to work with Southeast Asian countries. But ASEAN would like to see more support from the US for initiatives led by the bloc.
Quad, officially known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is made up of the US, Australia, Japan and India in a strategic partnership aimed at countering China’s looming military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Separately, Aukus is made up of Australia, the UK and the US, an Indo-Pacific security alliance launched last September.
“ASEAN would probably like to see more support from the US for its ASEAN-led mechanisms, as opposed to US-led minilateral groups such as Quad and Aukus,” said Joanne Lin, a principal investigator at the ASEAN Studies Center at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak. Institute in Singapore.
“US support for the ASEAN Outlook in the Indo-Pacific will be important,” added Lin, referring to the document passed in 2019, in which ASEAN outlined its geostrategic concept of the Indo-Pacific region after former President Donald Trump his vision of a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
People in many parts of the Southeast Asian region see US interests primarily as a struggle between US liberal democracy and Asian conservatism, said Ong, the former ASEAN secretary general.
“Of course we have different forms of autocratic governance in different parts of ASEAN. Still, there are many areas where mutually rewarding joint initiatives can be taken to deepen ties on a broader canvas,” Ong said.
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
The US may be discussing the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework announced by Biden at the East Asian Summit last year. This could include new approaches to trade, securing supply chains and clean energy.
“While the US is still working out the content of the framework, it is unlikely to impress ASEAN,” said Lin of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The lack of market access and high labor and environmental standards may not fare well with several ASEAN countries.”
There may be “some progress with the Indo Pacific Economic Framework, but it’s unlikely there will be any binding U.S. commitments,” CFR’s Kurlantzick said, adding that summit expectations will be “fairly low” — given that there are still so many more happening in the world.
Two ASEAN countries will not be represented at the meeting with Biden: outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup d’état in February 2021.