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US woos ASEAN amid battle for hearts- and- minds with China

East-Asia-Summit.webp

President Joe Biden of the United States hosted the Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington, D.C. on May 12 and 13 for a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.

Introduction

President Joe Biden of the United States hosted the Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington, D.C. on May 12 and 13 for a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. This was the first US Summit with ASEAN leaders to be ever organised in Washington DC. Before this, the first US-ASEAN Special Summit to be ever held in the US was by President Barack Obama in 2016 at Sunnylands in California.

The Washington meeting represented the first conclave of the US and ASEAN leaders since they met at the East Asia Summit in November, 2017 in Manila. That was the only time that former US President Donald Trump attended the East Asia Summit. The 10th US-ASEAN regular Summit in October, 2021, in which Biden and the ASEAN leaders participated, was held virtually on account of the ongoing pandemic.

The Washington Special Summit was organized to mark 45 years of partnership between the US and ASEAN which was launched in 1977, on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the grouping, when it still comprised the original six members.

A decision was taken at the Washington Summit to upgrade the relationship from ‘’strategic partnership’’, which was established during the Special Summit in 2016, to a ‘’comprehensive strategic partnership’’ at the forthcoming regular US-ASEAN Summit in November, 2022.

The Special Summit sought to demonstrate the ‘’United States’ enduring commitment to ASEAN and recognize its central role in delivering sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.’’ The deliberations expanded U.S. engagement with ASEAN on COVID-19 recovery and health security, fighting the climate crisis, stimulating economic growth, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, and deepening people-to-people ties. Other important issues discussed were enhancing trade partnership and connectivity, promoting maritime cooperation, sub-regional development, leveraging technology and promoting innovation, preserving peace and building trust etc.

The Joint Vision Statement

The Joint Declaration issued at the end of the two-day Summit is not long on words or paras. It consists of a mere 28 paras which is modest compared to the lengthy proclamations that are issued at the end of such deliberations. It however captures all the salient and significant issues and challenges confronting the world today.

What is particularly notable is that the Statement refers to relations between USA and ASEAN as ‘’indispensable.’’ This signals the interest of both sides to take the engagement to the next higher level in all spheres, but most importantly in the area of maritime security. Equally important, there is reference at several places in the Statement, in the Preamble as well as in the main body of the Text to the importance and significance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). This is a direct reference to the essential requirement of freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea which is being challenged by China, notwithstanding the adverse ruling against it by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in July, 2016. 

In his opening comments, President Biden stated that the United States and the ASEAN had entered a “new era” in their relationship. He said that the US wants to “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, wealthy, safe, and resilient.” The US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which was announced in February this year, supports alliances like the Quad (i.e., the United States, Australia, India, and Japan), increased US commitment and resources, and other measures, and also calls for an “empowered ASEAN.” The centrality of ASEAN in achieving these objectives has appeared as a strong pillar of the US’s regional policy.

The Summit’s goal seems to be to evolve modalities to partner and jointly confront today’s most serious global issues. The disruption of global markets and supply chains caused by the Ukraine war, combating climate change, recovering from the coronavirus epidemic, and restoring a mutual trade agenda constituted a significant element of the deliberations.

Alluding to the shift of the center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, Biden remarked that a ‘’ great deal of the history of our globe in the next 50 years will be written in the ASEAN countries, and our connection with you is the future, in the coming years and decades.”

Vice President Kamala Harris offered ASEAN members maritime security support to confront “threats to international laws and norms,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken had meetings with regional heavyweight and Chair of the G-20 Indonesia, and promising partner Vietnam.

During discussions, President Biden announced that his administration would provide $150 million to ASEAN to address issues related to infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness, and clean energy. Other U.S. commitments include the future deployment of a Coast Guard vessel to the region to help bolster the region’s maritime security. Biden also announced the nomination of Yohannes Abraham, the chief of staff of his National Security Council, to be ambassador to ASEAN, a post that has been vacant since the beginning of the Trump administration. A Coast Guard vessel would also be deployed to the region as part of new US pledges to combat what the US and neighbouring countries have described as China’s illicit fishing.

Nonetheless, US contribution is a pale shadow in contrast to China’s, which offered $1.5 billion in development aid for ASEAN over three years in November last year to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and propel economic recovery.

Eight out of the ten ASEAN leaders participated in the Summit. The Philippines, an alliance partner of the US, could not come because of the ongoing election. Myanmar was not invited because it has been suspended by the ASEAN on account of the military coup on 1st February, 2021. The Biden administration and ASEAN leaders agreed to put an empty chair to symbolize Myanmar’s deposed civilian government. The empty chair, according to the organizers, represented “dissatisfaction with what’s happened and our hope for a better route forward.” Myanmar refused to send an envoy after Washington and other ASEAN nations asked for a nonaligned voice to represent the country. Fifteen months on from the military takeover, the junta is still facing public protests as well as battles with multiple armed insurgencies. Diplomatic attempts to change the military junta’s thinking have failed to bear any fruit. A program including pledges to begin dialogue with opposition groups and end the cycle of violence—called the five-point consensus—is now over a year old, but it stays only on paper. The US appears to have offered its support to the ASEAN and the UN Envoys to move the process forward.

The conflict in Ukraine finds a prominent mention in the Joint Statement but without criticizing or condemning Russia. In fact, Russia by name does not appear anywhere in the Statement. The reference to the UN Charter as well as non-violability of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations is clearly stated. The declaration emphasizes ‘’the importance of an immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an enabling environment for peaceful resolution.’’ Support for the initiative of the UN Secretary General to bring peace and for providing humanitarian assistance have been stressed.

The formulation on Ukraine in the statement is much clearer and sharper than what most ASEAN countries have so far stated with respect to the conflict. In the vote in the UN General Assembly on 7th April, 2022 on the expulsion of Russian Federation from the UNHRC, Vietnam and Laos had voted in favor of Russia, Myanmar and Philippines voted against it, and the other six countries viz Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Brunei and Singapore abstained. As mentioned above, Myanmar and Philippines, the two countries which voted with the West, did not participate in the Summit.

Before the Summit, the controversial issue of inviting Russia for the G-20 Summit by Indonesia in November, 2022 had already been resolved with Indonesia agreeing to invite Ukraine as a Guest country.

Conclusion

The Summit was a win-win proposition for both sides. An interaction at the highest level took place after a span of about 5 years. Much has changed in this period. It is particularly significant for partners in these wildly different circumstances to work to reach a new level of cooperation and partnership.

The Summit was important for both the USA as well as ASEAN. It was significant for President Biden to demonstrate that notwithstanding the conflict in Europe, he has not taken his eyes off the Indo-Pacific. It was crucial for the ASEAN to feel reassured that the US continues to remain engaged with Asia and the ASEAN. It was considered important for Biden to stitch up and consolidate the US partnership with ASEAN before he undertakes his first visit to Asia (ROK, Japan) and participates in the Quad Summit later this month.

India can feel satisfied with the results of the US-ASEAN Special Summit as it is further evidence that President Biden has not got so engrossed with the Russia-Ukraine war that he has pushed the rivalry with China and the Indo-Pacific on the back-burner. It is also reassuring that the second in-person Quad Summit will take place in a few days’ time in Tokyo, Japan on 24th May, eight months after the last in-person Summit in Washington DC. The center of gravity of the world has moved to the Indo-Pacific. It is imperative that the US, India, ASEAN as well as Japan, Australia, ROK and other like-minded countries work together to ensure that the region continues to be an area of peace, stability, security and prosperity.

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