Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was not invited to the US-ASEAN Summit in Washington. Photo: Myawaddy TV / Screengrab

The United States seems determined to dismiss growing suspicions that its preoccupation with the Ukraine crisis has allowed China a freer hand across the Indo-Pacific region. The backdrop of the prolonged Covid-19 pandemic – where, unlike the US and its allies, China has managed to contain its health and economic consequences – has only reinforced such scary pontifications.

It is against this backdrop that finally May 12-13 will see US President Joe Biden hosting a special in-person summit with the ASEAN leaders in Washington.

This summit, to commemorate the 45 years of US-ASEAN relations, was originally planned for the end of March but was delayed because of scheduling problems claimed by some of the ASEAN leaders. 

The originally scheduling had been meant as a follow-up to the release of Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in February that reiterated the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the region. But now, this special summit is coinciding with the Biden administration’s much-awaited China Policy outline and will be followed, later this month, by Biden’s visits South Korea and Japan.

Among his engagements during his Asia tour, Biden will be joining the Quad leaders’ summit. 

China-centricity

This changed backdrop of the US-ASEAN summit clearly sharpens the focus on the China-centricity of US engagement with the Southeast Asian bloc. Indeed, Biden’s efforts at uniting America’s Asian allies in knitting together his larger Indo-Pacific narratives by offering economic alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative have continued to betray the China-centricity of multifaceted US engagements.

It has aways been tricky for the United States to avoid publicizing the China fixation of its Indo-Pacific discourses, and ASEAN perhaps presents the most apt example.

ASEAN, which was originally created to contain the spread of communism, has since come to be a close economic partner, if not friend, of China. Last November, President Xi Jinping, marking the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN relations, even endorsed ASEAN centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook for the Indo-Pacific region.

ASEAN’s most vehement supporter of China in recent times, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, is be about to be replaced by Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who swept the recent election and is due to be sworn in as president of the Philippines on June 30. However, the outgoing president’s daughter Sara Duterte will be the new vice-president, and is expected to continue Rodrigo Duterte’s legacies for the next six years. 

According to some experts, in spite of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr having once had a strong security partnership with the United States, his son is more likely to continue Duterte’s policies by “engaging China while keeping the United States close by.”

Others believe that Marcos Jr may actually push relations closer to China, increasing the growing awkwardness in US-ASEAN relations. But as the Philippines will reportedly not be represented at the Washington summit, this issue will likely remain murky for now.

ASEAN centrality

To play it safe, the US interlocutors are expected to parrot the “ASEAN centrality” mantra.  This has come to be one most agreed formulas that could keep the US closer to its Asian allies, as well as European allies interested in the Indo-Pacific region.

This also explains why the recent press release on the subject from ASEAN chair Cambodia also alludes to the expectation that the US would continue to uphold ASEAN centrality as a key to fostering larger regional peace and stability. 

The press release also underlines how this week’s event will be the second special US-ASEAN summit since 2016 and the first in-person US presidential engagement for ASEAN leaders since 2017, alluding perhaps to Washington’s relative neglect of the bloc during the Donald Trump era. 

No doubt Biden has gradually distanced himself from his predecessor’s narrowly focused, confrontationist, China-centric approach to the Indo-Pacific region, yet what worries ASEAN is that Washington has failed so far to go beyond its China-centric focus.

Creation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) security mechanism have only reinforced such concerns regarding likely marginalization of ASEAN.

With Secretary of State Antony Blinken testing positive for Covid-19, his planned May 5 George Washington University speech to outline US-China policy was postponed and may end up happening very close to the US-ASEAN summit. Until then, Blinken’s speech of March 2021 continues to be the blueprint of Biden’s China policy; that is, to be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” 

At its face value, this may align well with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, yet the US increasingly feels the need to wean ASEAN away from getting attracted to China-centric multilateralism in the region. Way back in 2009, China had become ASEAN’s largest trading partner, in 2020 ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner. This says a lot about their changing equations.

The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise 2021 plus the expected conclusion of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the disputed South China Sea before the end of 2022 has surely ignited anxieties among US interlocutors.

And now Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) that warns Asian nations of “hegemonism, power politics and confrontations” that alludes to US initiatives like Quad and AUKUS making ASEAN concerned about this increasing brinkmanship between the US and China.

Xi’s call for “Asian unity” in the GSI has to be seen in the context of the continuing Ukraine crisis that has further sharpened the divide between the US and China, where ASEAN fears being sidelined. This may see interlocutors at the US-ASEAN Summit pulling and pushing in different directions.

Ukraine vs Myanmar

For instance, while ensuring ASEAN support on Ukraine would be the expected priority for the US interlocutors, ensuring greater US engagement on resolving continuing tensions in Myanmar would be ASEAN’s priority in this summit.

While most nations around the world have put the onus of resolving the Myanmar problem on ASEAN, the bloc has become increasingly ineffective in making of this member state comply with even a minimum of basic international norms.

Other than broad issues deliberating on principles and broad praxis for addressing various international challenges, Ukraine and Myanmar therefore are likely to become issues of contention, even competitive in seeking greater traction. It is interesting to see that other than Singapore, the nine other ASEAN members have so far remained cautious in supporting the pet American project of slapping severe sanctions on Russia.

The short two-paragraph statement issued by the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meet in March expressed their being “deeply troubled” by “worsening humanitarian conditions resulting from ongoing military hostilities in Ukraine” and called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, but without naming Russia or calling it an invasion.

For ASEAN, Myanmar remains their strongest aberration. The prime minister of Cambodia, the ASEAN Chair for 2022, Hun Sen, traveled to Myanmar in January to explore ways to untie knots in the Five Point Consensus signed in April last year. 

At a summit in Jakarta on April 24, 2021, General Min Aung Hlaing agreed to end the violence in Myanmar immediately, start dialogue with elected leaders, and accept humanitarian assistance and appointment of a special envoy for visits to Myanmar and meetings with all parties. 

This has since failed, primarily because of Min Aung Hlaing going back on his commitments to ASEAN and continuing to incarcerate Aung San Suu Kyi, her party leaders and her supporters.

On May 1, Hun Sen again called on the junta leader, asking him to allow a second visit by the ASEAN Chair’s special envoy to meet with deposed national leader Suu Kyi, but to no avail so far. 

But the dilemma is that ASEAN may be seeking solutions to Myanmar while its military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, has not been invited to the summit. How the US, the strongest votary of protecting democracy, will manage to restore ASEAN confidence in its commitment will be an uphill task at this week’s meeting. 

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; president of Association of Asia Scholars (asiascholars.in); adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).