With global attention focused on Russia’s war of choice against Ukraine, the U.S. special summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has received comparatively little attention. That is regrettable. Beyond the summit itself which takes place May 12-13, the deliberations could provide an opening for the United States to begin an effort over the next few months and years in partnership with the regional organization to advance cooperation in ways that work for both sides.
Despite having to reschedule the summit from its original date in April and the fact that this will not feature all ten ASEAN leaders, this event could be a big win for the Biden team. But there is also significant risk if the summit doesn’t produce outcomes seen positively by Southeast Asian nations. The key will be not just to achieve success at the summit itself, but to follow that up with a plan to engage ASEAN in a way that benefits the region as well as U.S. interests.
ASEAN and its member states matter, especially in these difficult times. 667 million people living in one of the fastest growing and geo-strategically significant regions of the world welcome greater American involvement. Already, ASEAN supports 625,000 American jobs and is the fourth-largest consumer of American exports. If the administration puts sufficient human and financial resources behind promised programs, they can capitalize on this gathering, and it will pay dividends for years to come.
From the ASEAN viewpoint, the United States has disappointed the region in recent years. Economically speaking, Washington didn’t sign on to the two major trade arrangements that bind the region – the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the trade arrangement formerly known as TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The United States has also yet to sign on to any other bilateral trade agreements with ASEAN states. Diplomatically, former President Donald Trump failed to attend any meeting of ASEAN leaders during his last three years in office.
The region did not stand still while Washington dithered. Chinese filled this vacuum by inking agreements, showing up in force for summits, and dangling major aid packages, including vaccines following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lack of progress in trade has been accompanied by the failure of successive U.S. programs to increase investment in much-needed infrastructure in ASEAN. Initiatives such as the Blue Dot Network, U.S.-ASEAN Connect and the Development Finance Corporation have not led to the availability of significantly more funds for infrastructure nor served as an effective alternative to massive regional infrastructure funding provided under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The Biden Administration has led the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) and Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) grouping of nations, which are much needed to focus on the significant security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. But these structures do not yet include a mechanism for consulting, much less coordinating, with ASEAN. And given that it is now over five years that the United States has failed to send an ambassador to ASEAN, it is understandable if ASEAN asks if the United States no longer cares about its future. The many official visits by high level Biden Administration have ameliorated these concerns, but the region seeks signs of long-term dedication.
Despite sometimes being derided as nothing more than a talk shop, ASEAN is a useful organization for its members and for the rest of the world. Above all, it has helped keep the peace between its diverse members because it demands regular conversations among them. Moreover, decisions can sometimes be taken within ASEAN that are difficult for member countries to take individually. Especially for the smaller ASEAN countries, the association gives added weight to programs and policies beyond what any single member state can achieve. For the United States, ASEAN offers a way to engage with problematic regimes in a less direct way, and sometimes with the support of major ASEAN nations, as is the case now regarding Myanmar.
Most importantly, ASEAN matters greatly to its members and they react negatively when it is dismissed. The term of art “ASEAN centrality,” which was included in the new Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, means that ASEAN sees itself as a fulcrum of regional economic and security architecture. Indeed, it does hold the summits that bring the region together on “neutral” ground– China, Japan, Korea, India and the United States all show up. It serves U.S. purposes to gain the agreement of all its member states through the ASEAN mechanism and satisfies ASEAN members’ political needs when it is used.
ASEAN is also a champion of rule of law as it sees it, particularly given its multilateral nature. This is key when Russia’s aggression has emphasized to the world that the sovereignty of nations is now up to global powers rather than governed by global rules. China has been indicating this point in the South China Sea for the past decade and the security agreement China recently signed with Solomon Islands is raising questions among some ASEAN members about what this could mean for their own security posture.
ASEAN states will no doubt be coming to Washington for the summit with high expectations for ideas that will increase their economic and security resilience. Promises in this regard were made in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy document and the final statement from the recent Quad foreign ministers meeting in Melbourne.
The risk at the summit is that these expectations are not met. For instance, is clear that the Biden administration will not offer increased access to U.S. markets, even while asking ASEAN to sign up for improved labor and environmental standards and reduced limits on digital transactions and data portability. Vague promises of help by the United States will be weighed against these specific demands.
But looking beyond the summit itself, if the United States offers financing and technology, especially in the areas of green energy, healthcare education, that could help change that narrative over time. This includes more scholarships to our universities, investment in smart cities, and greater cooperation and interaction in the security sphere with our Quad and AUKUS partners. In this way, the United States would achieve greater resilience for ASEAN nations against autocratic coercion.
The world may return to Cold War-style competition for influence in third nations, but this time apparently with less reluctance to use direct economic and military force. The United States and its allies need to listen to ASEAN and other nations regarding what they need to maintain their sovereignty. And ASEAN needs to be clear how they want to work with the United States.
Jim Carouso is a Senior Advisor at BowerGroupAsia.