US President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman participate in the US-ASEAN Special Summit at the US Department of State in Washington on May 13, 2022. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / US State Department / Freddie Everett

When the US-ASEAN Summit was first announced, there were great expectations on both sides. But after a postponement due to disagreements on dates, Kurt Campbell, architect of US-Asia policy, quipped: “We just hope they show up.” The leaders of Myanmar and the Philippines did not, but the rest did come to the summit in Washington last week. However, fond hopes foundered on the rocks of reality. 

The US wanted to win over the Association of Southeast Asian Nation and its members to its side in its struggle with China for regional domination. ASEAN wanted to extract robust US commitments to its regional centrality in political and economic affairs as well as to actions that demonstrate that the US interest in it will not fade in favor of Europe. 

Some had hoped that the US would court ASEAN for its own merits rather than as a pawn in its strategic struggle with China for regional dominance. But the summit did little to dispel their concerns. 

The highlight of the meeting was an agreement to establish a US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The US needed this to place its relations with ASEAN on the same level as that of ASEAN’s with China. Ironically, this symbolized their intensifying competition for ASEAN’s hearts and minds. But it is unclear what this new formality will mean in practice.

Also read: The US challenge to ASEAN’s centrality

The US has previously made its intentions crystal clear. The goal of its Indo-Pacific Strategy is to prevent China’s regional hegemony by building greater coordination with allies and partners “across war-fighting domains” to ensure allies can dissuade or defeat “aggression in any form.” This means that its success depends on a US-centric network of security allies and partners and their willingness to go along with it in confronting China.

The summit was part of this US effort to build a united front against China. But ASEAN and the US have fundamentally different visions for the region.

The US vision of an implicitly anti-China, security-oriented Free and Open Indo-Pacific contrasts with ASEAN’s inclusive (including China), more economic, less militaristic Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN hopes the US and China can co-exist and refrain from raising tensions that hurt them.

ASEAN wants the US to make its actions consistent with its rhetoric of supporting ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs. “Centrality” here “refers to the role of ASEAN as a regional leader or driver, convener or facilitator, hub or key node.”

US President Joe Biden declared last week that strengthening the US relationship with ASEAN is “at the very heart of [US] foreign-policy strategy.” Perhaps that is so. But the goal of that strategy is to constrain and contain China, and that is not necessarily in the interests of ASEAN or its members.

ASEAN and its members were already wary of US-driven realpolitik strategic moves like AUKUS and the Quad that have been initiated to counter what the US sees as the “China threat’ to its hegemony in Asia. The US and its allies went around and over ASEAN to form these pacts. As a result, ASEAN has been split and weakened. 

The Joint Vision Statement issued by the meeting on Friday reflects these contradictions. It is remarkable more for what is missing or left ambiguous than what is included and clear. The parties agreed to “appropriately [emphasis added] cooperate in international and regional fora.” But what is “inappropriate” cooperation? Clearly, either or both had reservations regarding certain types of cooperation. But which types, and why?

They declared that they “look forward to further strengthening cooperation including through relevant initiatives or frameworks of the United States or ASEAN.” This ambiguity appears to reflect real differences or uncertainties as to which side should take the initiative on what issues.

For example, Washington seems to want to fit ASEAN into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among India, Japan, Australia and the US. But ASEAN centrality means its security architecture and forums should take precedence and the Quad should take direction from them.

Despite its rhetoric to the contrary, last week’s meeting was still all about China and the US effort to form a united front against it. 

ASEAN wants the US to place more emphasis on US-ASEAN economic relations. Indeed, the most important single thing the US could do to appeal to ASEAN members would be to lead and coordinate a multinational effort of economic assistance in a strategic manner focusing on needs defined by the recipients.

Yet it missed the opportunity to announce its long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). It was not even mentioned in the Joint Vision Statement. This only reinforced the notion that “ASEAN is not a fulcrum for US economic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Moreover, there is concern that the IPEF will be focused on issues more important to the US and its strategy to contain China than ASEAN members’ urgent needs. Because of the ephemeral nature of previous US commitments to Asia like the “pivot,” there is suspicion that the IPEF will not outlast the Biden administration.

This concern was reinforced by the US announcement of a paltry $150 million aid pledge, including $60 million for US Coast Guard assistance in training, presence and equipment to ASEAN countries. This will increase maritime domain awareness that is to the US advantage in its long-term struggle against China. 

The total is ridiculously small compared with China’s $1.5 billion aid pledge and the many billions in US aid to Ukraine. 

As another example of US-centrism, it managed to insert in the Joint Vision Statement its concern with “ensuring “freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas.” The latter is code for asserting what it considers to be its right to undertake provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes against China. 

Perhaps the most egregious US hypocrisy in the Joint Vision Statement is “we support ASEAN’s efforts to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a nuclear-weapon-free zone … as enshrined in the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty.”

In addition to frequently transporting nuclear weapons through the region, the US has declined to become a party to that treaty. Meanwhile China has declared that it is ready to sign on – apparently in response to the AUKUS agreement, which will likely bring more nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon-capable submarines into the region.

On the interpersonal level, President Biden declined bilateral meetings with the leaders. His administration claimed this was to emphasize that he was meeting with ASEAN as an institution. Given that they had traveled halfway around the world to meet with him, I suspect some were miffed.  

A major flaw in this approach is that ASEAN is not united on political issues. This is clearly demonstrated by its members’ diverse responses to the crises in Myanmar and Ukraine and even to China’s behavior in the South China Sea. They are only united in that they do not want to be forced to choose between China and the US.

Indeed, they do not want to become puppets or designated proxies for either one, as happened during the US-Soviet Cold War with disastrous results for some of them, such as Vietnam. But it is not clear from this summit that the US will help them avoid that fate.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.