23.05.2022 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

US-ASEAN Summit Leaves Washington Empty-handed


The recently held US-ASEAM summit in Washington was meant to serve what an official of the Biden administration called the need for “step[ing] up our [the US] game in Southeast Asia” against China. The underlying logic of this politics of increasing US strategic engagement with ASEAN is a more strategic realignment of the latter’s foreign policy with Washington at a time when the US’ search for allies against its strategic competitors – Russia and China – is, ever since then end of the Cold War, at its peak. Washington, by holding the summit at a time when a war is ongoing in Europe, tried to make it clear to the ASEAN countries that Washington remains ‘sensitive’ towards – and is eager to integrate with – the region on the whole. In fact, in a joint 28-point “vision statement” after a two-day meeting, the two sides seemingly decided to expand their relationship from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” But how viable this partnership will become for the US, given ASEAN’s efforts to avoid, rather than actively seek, global geopolitical entanglement?

While ASEAS itself may find it useful to have stronger ties with the US for several economic reasons – which is one reason for the region’s continuous engagement with the US, evident from the latest summit – it is highly unlikely to sacrifice its foreign policy to develop ties with the US. On the other hand, ASEAN’s geopolitics indicates that the region will exploit the US need for allies in the Indo-Pacific region to extract foreign direct investment from Washington to help drive its own economic growth while maintaining its usual deep and broad economic ties with the Beijing and even Russia.

The US-ASEAN summit, while held in Washington, revealed the limitations of a thorough foreign policy realignment that can take place between both actors. For instance, despite Washington’s serious efforts in this behalf, according to even the state-owned Voice of America, to illicit an ASEAN-wide condemnation of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the joint statement does not mention Russia at all. As the VoA reported further, the ASEAN leaders showed no appetite for getting unnecessarily embroiled in the US global game. Indonesia has, thus far, also resisted US efforts to exclude Russia from the upcoming G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, showing how an automatic realignment between the US and ASEAN is neither conceivable nor possible. Washington’s objectives, therefore, not only remain illusory but even unsuccessful in many ways.

As far as other ASEAN countries are concerned, Myanmar supports the Russian position on Ukraine, with Laos and Vietnam abstaining from voting against Russia in the UN.

The same is true of ASEAN’s position vis-à-vis China. In fact, the ASEAN region is too deeply tied to China for the US to dislodge this relationship. China is already a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has already applied to become a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Given the extent of China-ASEAN ties, a visible change in China’s ties with individual countries – especially those that have stakes in the South China Sea – is emerging. For instance, the victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the Philippines presidential elections is nothing short of a good news for China.

Marcos is not only pro-China, but he has already signalled that he would put an end to the dispute with China in the South China sea. Marcos’ plan involves making a fresh deal with Beijing. During his elections campaign, he told the media that “If you let the U.S. come in, you make China your enemy,” adding that “I think we can come to an agreement [with China]. As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends. We have been talking about that.”

A deal between China and the Philippines will be a major setback for the US – especially, its politics of acting as a guarantor of security in the region. Such a deal will not only encourage other ASEAN countries with stakes in the South China sea to go for bi-lateral agreements with Beijing, but would also further eliminate the need for turning ASEAN’s economic partnership and relations with the US into a military-oriented strategic partnership.

In effect, such a deal will show the limits – and even the failure – of various US efforts to make ASEAN adopt a more aggressive approach towards China. Although the US officially denies forcing ASEAN countries into adopting a “pro” or “anti” China position, it remains that the US seeks such a stance. For instance, when the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Indonesia last year, he openly criticised China for “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea and economic practices “distorting open markets through subsidies to its state-run companies.”

The Philippines’ shift towards deal-making reveals that the US rhetoric has failed to bring any meaningful change in the Philippines in ways that would ultimately complement Washington’s stance, making it extremely difficult for the US to continue to project the same rhetoric in the future. Let’s not forget that the Philippines is a country with deep military ties with Washington. In fact, it was only in March that the US held its biggest ever military exercise with the Philippines in several years.

As the present trends indicate, apart from some exceptions (i.e., Singapore), the US is unlikely to get any meaningful support from ASEAN against Russia or China.

While no ASEAN country – including the Philippines – is expected to abandon its ties with the US in the wake of ever-deepening and broadening ties with Beijing, it remains that ASEAN will not become a US pawn. On the contrary, ASEAN will continue using its ties with the US and China and Russia according to the collective interests of the region as well as considering the national interests of each country. This will leave minimum room for Washington to develop an ‘Asian NATO’ and maximum for China to deepen economic engagement even further.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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