US-ASEAN Ties and the China Factor

US President Joe Biden hosted a two day US-ASEAN Summit on May 12-13, 2022. This is the first time, that leaders of the 10 nation grouping were invited to the White House. The Philippines was represented by its Foreign Secretary since it was in the midst of a leadership transition, while Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who had removed Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor, in 2021 was barred from attending the event.

The timing of this Summit (the first of its kind) is important for a number of reasons; First, it came days before Biden’s visit to Korea and Japan. Second, the Summit took place in the midst of the Ukraine Crisis and the implications of the crisis received attention during the course of the meeting.

The main aim of this Summit was to strengthen US-ASEAN ties, under the umbrella of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. US President Joe Biden during his address at summit referred to the importance of ASEAN in the context of the Indo Pacific. Said Biden: “ASEAN centrality is the very heart of my administration’s strategy in pursuing the future we all want to see. The Indo-Pacific is an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable, and prosperous, and resilient and secure. It’s what we’re all seeking.”

A number of Senior officials in the Biden administration have toured the ASEAN region over the past year.  In August 2021,  US Vice President Kamala Harris had visited Singapore and Vietnam, in November 2021, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visited Singapore and Malaysia in December 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Indonesia, Malaysia and in April 2022, and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai visited Singapore.

During the summit, US committed $150 million worth of assistance to the ASEAN region with a focus on Maritime Security and Clean energy initiatives (in November 2021, China had made a commitment of $1.5 Billion to ASEAN countries for fighting Covid-19). While ASEAN countries have in recent years pointed to the threats posed by China, they have also reiterated that they would not like to be forced into making choices between US and China. China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, bilateral trade between China and ASEAN was estimated at a staggering $685.28 billion, while US was ASEAN’s second largest trading partner and trade was a little over $308 billion.

Beijing’s economic influence in ASEAN has also increased via the Belt and Road Initiative. While there have been questions with regard to the economic sustainability of certain projects linked to the BRI, China has invested in some important infrastructural projects including the $5.9 billion China-Laos Railway and the high-speed rail project connecting Jakarta with the city of Bandung (this project is estimated at $7.9 billion).

Here it would be pertinent to point out that a number of ASEAN countries have not taken a clear stance on the Ukraine issue, because of the reasonable, if not cordial, ties they share with Russia. It is for this reason, that the statement issued after the Summit refused to issue an outright condemnation of Russia and did not use the words ‘war’ or ‘invasion’. Significantly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo who is the rotating president of the G20 has refused to exclude Russian President Vladimir Putin from the G20 Summit to be hosted by Indonesia later this year in November (Biden and other western leaders had threatened to boycott the summit). Widodo had also turned down Zelensky’s request for arms, and had urged both Russia and Indonesia to find a solution.

US-ASEAN differences are not just on foreign policy issues, four ASEAN member states Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam are signatories to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) now referred to as Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) from which the US pulled out in 2017.  One of the major criticisms of the Biden Administration has been its inability to reverse the Trump Administration’s insular economic policies. In the security sphere, the US has been able to send out some important signals with regard to its Indo-Pacific strategy and has even strengthened defence ties with a number of ASEAN countries.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy has often been accused of lacking a clear economic vision. During his visit to East Asia, Biden will be launching the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework during his East Asia visit. The US President had highlighted the key features of the IPEF while addressing the East Asia Summit, held virtually, last year:“Trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, decarbonization and clean energy, infrastructure, worker standards, and other areas of shared interest.”

ASEAN countries are keen for greater access to the US market something which IPEF clearly excludes. Malaysian PM Ismail Sabri while commenting on this aspect said that US needed to have a stronger thrust on trade and investment relations with ASEAN.

A CSIS Report, ‘Filling in the Indo Pacific Economic framework’ highlights the above points. First, that the IPEF needs to have tangible benefits especially for the less developed countries in ASEAN. While Singapore has been one of the few countries to endorse the IPEF, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong has categorically stated that the IPEF needs to be more inclusive. Second that a number of smaller ASEAN countries may be dissuaded by China from joining the IPEF. Beijing has already been scathing in its criticism of the IPEF.

There is scope for the US to invest in infrastructural projects in ASEAN and it can rope in the private sector through the United States International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC) and also explore common ground with ASEAN countries under the umbrella of the Biden Administration’s proposed Build Better Back World (BBBW) initiative.

While ASEAN countries are keen to reduce their dependence upon China, they need to strike a fine balance. At a time when there is growing scepticism with regard to China’s model of engagement, it is important for the US along with other countries to provide a feasible economic alternative and also not compel ASEAN countries to choose between the US and China.

[Photo by ASEAN]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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