US President Joe Biden wrapped up over the weekend his first in-person participation at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this year’s rotational chairman of the regional organization.
Buoyed by his party’s better-than-expected performance at the US midterm elections, with the Democrats successfully holding onto the Senate, Biden doubled down on US-ASEAN strategic cooperation while extending an olive branch to China ahead of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
During the East Asia Summit on Sunday, the US president made it clear, per a White House statement, “the United States…does not seek confrontation; wants to make sure that we manage that competition responsibly…”
The US leader signaled a “genuine willingness to work together in areas where US and [Chinese] interests converge and where it’s in the interest of the broader public good as well, whether it be climate change or public health or other issues.”
At the Phnom Penh summit, Biden oversaw the upgrading of US-ASEAN relations into a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, a status that was acquired by China last year that broadly expands the future scope of bilateral cooperation.
During the East Asia Summit, which gathers ASEAN leaders along with major Indo-Pacific powers including India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China and the United States, the US president made it clear Washington “will compete vigorously [with China]….while keeping lines of communication open and ensuring competition does not veer into conflict,” according to a statement released by the White House.
The mega-summit, however, laid bare strategic fault lines within Southeast Asia and the broader region, as participating nations failed to agree on various pressing and volatile strategic concerns, from the ongoing war in Ukraine to unresolved brewing disputes in the South China Sea pitting China against Southeast Asian nations.
ASEAN leaders also dithered over pressing regional issues, including the ongoing civil war in Myanmar as well as Timor-Leste’s membership in the regional body. Cambodia, this year’s ASEAN chairman, effectively toed China’s line by downplaying the South China Sea disputes altogether, thus leaving the issue to next year’s chairman, Indonesia.
Despite hopes of potential breakthroughs, ASEAN once again succumbed to internal divisions and chronic inaction. To begin with, Timor-Leste’s much-expected admission as the 11th member of the regional body was postponed. Southeast Asian leaders only agreed “in principle”, despite heavy backing from Cambodia’s leadership to admit a new member.
Two major concerns have made Timor-Leste’s admission relatively contentious: The small nation’s ability to bear financial and other related costs that come with ASEAN membership and perhaps more importantly the young nation’s heavy dependence on Chinese aid. In the past, some ASEAN members expressed concerns over earlier admission of China-dependent states such as Cambodia.
Last year, a veteran Singaporean diplomat called for nothing less than the expulsion of Cambodia, which has moved into China’s strategic orbit in recent years amid reports it has secretly granted China access to its first naval base in Southeast Asia.
On the South China Sea, meanwhile, Cambodia sought to play down the disputes. Cambodian diplomat and spokesperson for the ASEAN Summit, Kung Phoak, effectively parroted China’s talking point by maintaining that the situation is stable since “There are [only] minor disputes but they do not escalate into larger ones.”
Back in 2012, Cambodia sought to block the discussion of the South China Sea in deference to Beijing, plunging the regional body into an unprecedented crisis. Undeterred by ASEAN disunity over the maritime disputes, the Philippines and Vietnam agreed to enhance maritime security cooperation and intelligence-sharing on the sidelines of the regional summits.
While divided on Timor Leste’s immediate membership and the South China Sea disputes, ASEAN also dithered on the brutal civil war in Myanmar following the junta’s usurpation of power from the democratically-elected government last year.
Southeast Asian leaders called on Myanmar’s junta to abide by an earlier “five-point consensus” peace plan, which would pave the way for the return of democratic elections and a semblance of political stability in the war-wracked Southeast Asian nation.
In response to the junta’s intransigence, ASEAN blocked Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, from attending this year’s summit. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who will assume ASEAN’s chairmanship next year, has proposed a more comprehensive ban on the junta’s participation in the regional body, but fell short of recommending Myanmar’s full expulsion.
“Indonesia is deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening,” Widodo said.
Lacking unity on the Myanmar crisis, ASEAN leaders have fallen back on calls for an engagement strategy which “would be done in a flexible and informal manner, primarily undertaken by the Special Envoy of the ASEAN Chair on Myanmar.”
Nevertheless, ASEAN leaders acknowledged the need for “an implementation plan that outlines concrete, practical and measurable indicators” with a firm timeline for the implementation of peace – but they did not agree on such a plan.
Crucially, Southeast Asian leaders effectively admitted their limitations, calling upon the United Nations “and our external partners” to forge an effective response to the crisis in Myanmar. The problem, however, is that external powers remain extremely divided on regional security issues themselves.
The US and like-minded powers such as the European Union and Japan reiterated the need for a rules-based regional order, including a legally-binding resolution of the South China Sea disputes. The West and its allies also took a tough stance against Russia, which was represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the ASEAN summits.
The Biden administration welcomed deeper engagement with ASEAN, while claiming that regional states privately prodded Washington to play a more active role in the region in order to balance China’s growing assertiveness in its immediate neighborhood.
“Overall, in terms of the stop in Cambodia, it is absolutely clear that there’s a huge demand signal for American engagement, as evidenced by the fact that ASEAN has elevated the US-ASEAN relationship to the highest level, to a comprehensive strategic partnership,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during a press briefing ahead of Biden-Xi summit in Bali, Indonesia.
“And many different leaders of ASEAN solicited American engagement across a range of fields. And privately, leaders came up to the president to say that it was really important that the US continue down the path that President Biden has put American foreign policy on, which is deepened and elevated engagement in this vital region of the world.”
Biden condemned Russia’s “brutal and unjust” invasion of Ukraine as well as North Korea’s recent missile tests. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov shot back by accusing the US and its allies of militarizing Southeast Asian geopolitics in order to contain Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
During a press conference, the Russian diplomat claimed, “The United States and its NATO allies are trying to master this space,” implying that ASEAN has become a battleground for the West’s New Cold War with Eastern rivals.
Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian