In his latest display of “reassurance diplomacy,” United States President Joe Biden hosted his Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts in the White House for a two-day event in Washington last week.
Celebrating the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-US Dialogue Relations, the two sides vowed to pursue a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” based on “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial” agreements, many of which are expected to be ironed out during the 10th ASEAN-US Summit in November.
At once, the Biden administration sought to dispel lingering concerns over potential strategic neglect amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has absorbed much of the strategic bandwidth in the West, as well as push back against China’s rising economic influence in Southeast Asia.
Among key areas of common concern were shared “respect for sovereignty, political independence and the territorial integrity” of Ukraine, the need for a “full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC),” the importance of preserving the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) and the urgent and comprehensive implementation of the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus in Myanmar.
Recognizing the US’ “vital economic participation” in the region, the two sides also discussed the ASEAN-US Trade and Investment Framework as well as other US-led multilateral initiatives such as “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which are all yet to be fully implemented.
As a sweetener, the Biden administration offered a US$150 million assistance package, which covers a wide area of cooperation, including funding for a regional CDC facility in Hanoi as well as deployment of a Coast Guard cutter to Southeast Asia.
Duterte misses meeting
Relevant ministers from both sides are expected to discuss the actual implementation of the initiatives at the ministration level based on the US-ASEAN Joint Vision Statement.
A notable absentee during the event in the White House was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who earlier vowed to boycott Western capitals over disagreements on human rights issues.
To be fair, the tough-talking Filipino president tried to patch up relations with Washington in his twilight months in office, including his decision to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), in gratitude for the Biden administration’s donation of up 33 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the Philippines.
But with the summit taking place only days after the Southeast Asian country’s presidential elections, which saw former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr securing an emphatic victory, the outgoing president found a good excuse to skip the event altogether.
“I might take a stand that will not be acceptable to the next administration,’ said Duterte ahead of the summit, trying to justify his decision to become the first Filipino president who hasn’t made an official visit to any Western capital.
Back in 2018, Duterte also skipped the inaugural Australia-ASEAN special summit in Canberra without providing any clear justification.
Ahead of the summit, Biden took the opportunity to reach out to Duterte’s successor. In fact, he was the first foreign leader to formally congratulate president-elect Marcos Jr, who won close to 60% of the vote based on unofficial counts.
“President Biden underscored that he looks forward to working with the President-elect to continue strengthening the US-Philippine Alliance, while expanding bilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the fight against Covid-19, addressing the climate crisis, promoting broad-based economic growth and respect for human rights,” the White House said in a statement after the Biden-Marcos phone conversation.
In turn, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez, a relative of the Marcoses who is a top candidate to become the next Philippine diplomatic chief, told the media: “We are prepared to work with you, Mr President, and continue to strengthen our relationship.”
Marcos gets US immunity
The Marcoses now face multiple court cases in the US on charges related to ill-gotten wealth and human rights violations during the dictatorship years. To maintain robust ties with its Southeast Asian treaty ally, Washington is set to recognize the incoming Philippine president’s “sovereign immunity” in the event of a visit to the US in the near future.
Back in 2014, the US State Department lifted travel restrictions on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi based on his alleged involvement in early-2000s pogroms in his home state of Gujarat.
Despite complaints of strategic neglect by Southeast Asian leaders, US-ASEAN relations are deep and comprehensive. Bilateral trade in 2020 reached $360 billion, while US companies continue to be among the top sources of greenfield investment in Southeast Asia.
Since 2002, the US has provided $12.1 billion in development and security assistance to the region, in addition to $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief aid. The Biden administration has allocated $800 million in bilateral assistance for ASEAN partners in its fiscal year 2023 budget request to further deepen bilateral ties.
Last year, the US deployed three top cabinet members – Vice-President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin – to multiple capitals, often twice, across Southeast Asia to revitalize bilateral strategic ties with ASEAN.
During the annual US-ASEAN Summit in October last year, President Biden announced a $102 million assistance package to enhance multi-dimensional cooperation with Southeast Asian partners.
This year, the Biden administration announced an additional $150 million initiative in order to, according to the White House, “mobilize billions more in private financing that will deepen US-ASEAN relations, strengthen ASEAN centrality and expand our common capacity to achieve our shared objectives.”
Aware of the need to provide alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Biden administration hopes to mobilize a further $2 billion in the near future under a Clean Energy Infrastructure plan in the region.
During their summit in the White House, the Biden administration sought to pursue “a new era of partnership” based on “complementary objectives” with ASEAN partners. By and large, their joint statement reflects a profound degree of shared interests.
Concern grows over Myanmar
To begin with, both sides emphasized how they are “deeply concerned over the crisis in Myanmar” and are committed to the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus as a basis for the resolution of the ongoing civil war in the Southeast Asian country.
On Myanmar, key Southeast Asian countries, similar to the US, have largely pushed back against efforts by Beijing to legitimize the brutal junta at the expense of the democratic opposition.
While falling short of directly pointing fingers at China, the two sides underscored their shared commitment “to maintaining peace, security and stability in the region, and to ensuring maritime security and safety, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas as described in the 1982 UNCLOS, and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”
Crucially, US and ASEAN leaders “reaffirmed the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS” and “recognize[d] the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity” as well as the “importance of practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation.”
Without directly mentioning the Philippines’ arbitration award cases against China under the aegis of UNCLOS, both sides emphasized the “unified character of the 1982 UNCLOS, and reaffirmed that the Convention sets out the legal framework and within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out and is of strategic importance as the basis for national, regional and global action and cooperation in the marine sector, and that its integrity needs to be maintained.”
In an indirect jab at China’s foot-dragging during the decades-old COC negotiations, the US and ASEAN also underscored “the importance of the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety,” and that any final agreement should be “effective and substantive” as well as “consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS.”
While largely skipping some earlier disagreements over the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, the two sides also underscored their shared “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 Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) and the ASEAN Charter” to preserve peace and stability in the region.
Accordingly, both sides agreed to jointly nudge the North Korean regime “to fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, taking into account the international community’s call for diplomacy and in the interest of maintaining peace and security in the region.”
On Ukraine, the US and ASEAN “reaffirm[ed] our respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity. We reiterate our call for compliance with the UN Charter and international law” and “underline[d] the importance of an immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an enabling environment for a peaceful resolution.”
In an indirect jab at Russia’s alleged blocking of humanitarian assistance to some conflict-ridden areas in Ukraine, the two sides pledged their support for “efforts of the UN Secretary-General in the search for a peaceful solution” and the need for “rapid, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance for those in need in Ukraine, and for the protection of civilians, humanitarian personnel and persons in vulnerable situations.”
The statement on Ukraine is particularly crucial since key ASEAN countries such as Vietnam are deeply dependent on military cooperation with Russia.
The two sides also welcomed the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which was launched last year to counter China’s “vaccine diplomacy” as part of broader efforts to “facilitate[e] equitable access to safe, affordable and quality medicine and health services.”
US and ASEAN leaders also discussed non-traditional security issues, including cybersecurity as well as climate change, vowing to pursue deepened collaboration under the auspices of the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC), ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and Global Methane Pledge, which collectively seek to enhance climate adaptation and mitigation measures in the region.
On the economic front, the two sides agreed to press ahead with the ASEAN-US Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement and Expanded Economic Engagement Initiatives Workplan over the coming months.
They emphasized the need to “meet the region’s infrastructure needs by catalyzing investment in high-standard, transparent, low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure projects that advance inclusive and sustainable economic growth that meet applicable international labor standards and environmental protections.”
More broadly, the two sides underscored how the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States “share relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture, in which ASEAN is central, alongside partners who share in these goals.”
Having restored confidence in bilateral ties, the Biden administration’s next big challenge is to implement wide-ranging alternatives to China’s economic and strategic initiatives in the region.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter: @Richeydarian