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Foreign Policy

ASEAN-U.S. Summit: Vision or Fiction?

Jun 07, 2022
  • Li Jianwei

    Director and Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

After a scheduling delay, the leaders of ASEAN — with the exception of Myanmar and the Philippines — attended the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit in Washington on May 12 and 13. The summit was part of America’s new investment in U.S.-ASEAN ties, one of 10 core lines in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which the United States released in February. At the end of the summit, a joint vision statement was issued. However, there might be more fiction in it than vision.

To some observers the summit reflected the principle of ASEAN’s centrality in Indo-Pacific multilateral mechanisms. The joint vision states that both the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the U.S. strategy “share relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive and rule-based regional architecture, in which ASEAN is central, alongside partners who share in these goals.”

When talking about shared principles, norms and values — aside from the UN Charter and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — the key ASEAN documents relating to peace and security are emphasized, including, among other things, the ASEAN Charter; the Declaration on Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN); the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC); the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ); and the AOIP.

At the summit, U.S. President Joe Biden emphasized the importance of ASEAN’s centrality to his administration’s strategy and announced another $150 million of initiatives to deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations and to “better our shared objectives” through cooperation on coast guards, climate change and infrastructure construction. He also announced his nomination of a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, a post that has been vacant since 2017.

The joint statement also listed eight areas for future cooperation: fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening economic ties and connectivity, promoting maritime cooperation, people-to-people connectivity, supporting sub-regional development, technology and innovation, peace and trust building and climate change. Both sides declared their intention to establish an ASEAN-U.S. comprehensive strategic partnership that is meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial at the 10th ASEAN-U.S. Summit in November 2022.

However, the vision in these statement may be mixed with some fiction.

First, while Biden reiterated that “ASEAN centrality” is vital to U.S.-ASEAN relations, his administration seems to attach more importance to other U.S.-led multilateral security-centered organizations, such as the Quad (composed of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India) and AUKUS (a combination of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States). The U.S. initiated the first summit of the Quad in September, and within less than two years four summits had been held — two virtual and two in person. The last meeting was held on May 24, just after the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit. The trilateral defense alliance, AUKUS, was announced in September to support Australia’s building of nuclear-propelled submarines. In addition, it aims at improving joint capabilities and military interoperability of the three countries in the Indo-Pacific region. These two blocs have diluted ASEAN’s role in regional security affairs — in reality weakening ASEAN’s centrality.

Second, the interests of ASEAN countries and those of the U.S. are very different. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is clearly designed to contain China, while the AOIP is meant to include China and is more economic than military in scope. ASEAN hopes that the U.S. and China can coexist and refrain from raising tensions that would force members to choose sides.

Responding to ASEAN’s hope for strengthened economic cooperation, the U.S. announced an investment of $150 million in the region, including $60 million for maritime cooperation — a trivial amount compared with China’s $1.5 billion of development assistance and America’s $40 billion in aid to Ukraine.

The U.S.-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework was included on the summit agenda, but no practical content was discussed on either market entrance or investment — which would have been helpful to ASEAN countries. Considering the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its detachment from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the IPEF does not seem to offer much to court ASEAN countries.

Third, as to regional security issues, the United States seems to show more hypocrisy than good intentions. Although both sides in the joint vision statement support ASEAN’s efforts to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and free of all other weapons of mass destruction — as enshrined in the Treaty on the SEANWFZ and in the ASEAN Charter — the establishment of AUKUS goes in the opposite direction.

Referring to issues at sea, one analyst noted that “other lawful uses of the seas, as described in the 1982 UNCLOS” was added by the U.S., referring to intelligence collecting or other military activities often practiced by the U.S. Navy. If that is true, some ASEAN countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, may not be in agreement with the interpretation of the U.S. Indonesia opposes operations by military aircraft over its archipelagic waters, and Malaysia opposes any military activities in its exclusive economic zone. The Biden administration has continued — if not intensified — the Trump administration’s policy of increasing the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea and nearby areas. U.S. warships frequently cross or hold military exercises in these areas to show military muscle, which has raised concerns from ASEAN countries.

After former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s statement on U.S. policy in the South China Sea, which obviously targeted China to win the hearts of Southeast Asian claimants, ASEAN issued a statement reiterating their call for peace in the region, implying that their intention is to avoid getting involved in a big power rivalry.

Looking into the future, whether an ASEAN-U.S. comprehensive strategic partnership will bring bilateral relations into a new era depends on the interaction between the two sides — in particular on what the U.S. can offer to ASEAN countries and to the region. Peace and development are their main concerns. Any policy or strategy to divide ASEAN or force its members to choose sides in the China-U.S. competition will not be welcomed and is hence doomed to fail in the end. 

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