After initially facing some setbacks related to difficulties in finding a suitable date for all ASEAN members to travel to Washington in March, the long-anticipated US-ASEAN summit finally took place last week, from May 12-13.
Even though it was postponed, the two-day visit by representatives of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations was only attended by eight, namely Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Singapore.
Most important, when it comes to the primary purpose of the summit, one might note cognitive dissonance when comparing the ASEAN chairman’s statement concerning the meeting and the White House’s equivalent.
The former document expressed high hopes of finding “ways and means to intensify cooperation” in areas related to “Covid-19 response and global health security, climate change, sustainable development, maritime cooperation, human capital development, education and people-to-people ties, as well as connectivity and economic engagement.”
The latter set a slightly different tone. The first part was similar, while a shared “commitment to advance an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, secure, connected, and resilient” was added at the end as a veiled reference to China.
Although this might be slightly disappointing, it should not come as a surprise.
We may remember that last October, President Joe Biden proclaimed at a virtual East Asia Summit that the US wanted to act as the Southeast Asian nations’ ally in defending democracy and freedom of the seas. At the same time, he criticized Beijing for its allegedly “coercive” measures vis-à-vis Taiwan as posing a serious threat to peace and stability in the region.
Furthermore, the White House’s readout of Biden’s participation in the summit mentioned that he also “reiterated the US commitment to the international rules-based order and expressed concern over threats to that order.”
Similar rhetoric was repeated ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Southeast Asia in December by Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He clarified that Blinken would concentrate on ramping up security support to counter China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea through more profound engagement with ASEAN countries.
In terms of “convergence” related to the region’s future, Kritenbrink concluded that the US vision relates to “a region that is free of coercion, a region where large countries do not bully the weak and where all countries play by the rules.”
During his first trip to Southeast Asia since President Biden took office in January 2021, Secretary Blinken expressed his country’s concern over Beijing’s “aggressive actions” and warned that China’s “unlawful” activity would meet with a “pushback” from the US and its “allies and partners.”
All of this is in the name of defending “the rules-based order” – the self-serving and vague linguistic construct that has more to do with the US hegemonic disorder than an actual reference to the international legal framework that would underpin a just world order.
It is rather evident that the US perceives the world’s most dynamic region as a strategic spot where it wants to compete for influence instead of cooperating with China.
This zero-sum thinking was visible during the recent summit in Washington when Biden fell short of offering meaningful economic incentives to ASEAN members but pledged a “modest” sum of $150 million to the Southeast Asian region – with almost half of it ($60 million) to be spent on maritime security operations.
Interestingly, this will include deploying US Coast Guard personnel and a ship to combat China’s so-called “illegal fishing” practices.
With Biden recognizing that “a great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written in the ASEAN countries” and Vice-President Kamala Harris telling the summit participants that the US would remain engaged in Southeast Asia for “generations” to protect the region from “threats to international rules and norms,” one has to admit that the stakes have significantly increased since the last Cold War, and the US will do whatever it takes to gain advantage over Beijing – even if it means acting to the detriment of the Southeast Asian people.
Unfortunately, this new geopolitical situation in the region puts enormous pressure on ASEAN members. It requires them to be more vigilant and resilient to maintain their strategic and normative centrality. But to make this happen, to quote American University Professor Amitav Acharya, the regional bloc have to keep in mind that “there can be no ASEAN centrality without ASEAN unity and ASEAN neutrality.”