Author: Brian Eyler, Stimson Center
The US–ASEAN Special Summit on 12–13 May 2022 was the first time ASEAN leaders have ever met the US president at the White House. Its outcomes show the United States remains focussed on the Indo-Pacific and China despite the crisis in Ukraine. The summit renewed US commitment to the region, yet it will only be successful if the government meets the demand signals of key actors in ASEAN with sustained resources.
The success of the Special Summit also hinges on US President Joe Biden’s in-person attendance of the upcoming ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh — a demonstration of continued US commitment to the region.
The summit brought together nine ASEAN delegations with key US agencies, including a series of official events chaired by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. These meetings provided a platform to show why ASEAN matters to the United States. In 2020, US foreign direct investment to ASEAN was US$328 billion, more than what China invests in ASEAN and more than the combined US investment in China, India, Japan and South Korea.
The United States is also invested in the region’s peace and stability through its two allies, Thailand and the Philippines, and strategic partners Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. Washington’s commitment to maritime domain awareness and safeguarding commercial passage in the South China Sea was a top priority on the agenda and received the largest share (approximately US$60 million) of the US$150 million in new resources pledged.
The maritime emphasis stems from China’s growing securitisation of the South China Sea, its illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and increased environmental degradation. The White House has put forward a range of new projects designed to combat these issues — including the deployment of a US Navy cutter to the region to operate as a training platform.
As a result of China’s regional footprint and global rise, ASEAN countries seek US support in priority areas that do not force countries to take sides in the context of great power competition. Engagement with ASEAN helps ensure that US resources are allocated over a spread of regional issues and prevents a military-centric policy from taking over the US agenda toward ASEAN.
Climate and sustainable development initiatives were also a top priority. These projects allocate funds to mobilise investment in renewable energy, sustainable forestry and provide capacity building for ASEAN countries to meet their COP26 commitments. While funding for these projects appears small (US$6–US$40 million), the United States can demonstrate that a dollar towards prevention will yield more than a dollar of progress in tackling climate and environmental issues if proven results achieved by ASEAN projects lead to augmented or sustained funding from Washington.
While some in Washington are calling for collaboration with China on climate issues, it is more likely that the United States and China will get involved in a climate policy race and target ASEAN as a zone of constructive competition.
Cooperation on pandemic recovery and strengthening economic ties and connectivity were top priorities for ASEAN leaders. US commitment to upholding multilateralism is apparent through its commitment to cooperation through the ASEAN–US Health Futures Initiative and the Quad Vaccine Partnership. The statement also signals greater digital collaboration and supply chain resilience to increase connectivity industries and information systems as the world adapts to living with COVID-19 — and as the United States and China become increasingly polarised.
While not officially on the agenda, Biden’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) was a key topic of discussion. Now that the IPEF is officially launched, defining the stream of benefits attached to the scheme should be a core topic of policy discourse for Indo-Pacific strategists.
The Vietnam delegation — despite the White House assuming it was a likely candidate for IPEF membership — was reluctant to join the agreement in Washington. This signal alone likely led the Biden team to lower the bar for nations to join the IPEF — a change that led to seven ASEAN countries signing up, including Vietnam. An intermediate goal of recruiting Laos and Cambodia, states thought to be deeply in China’s politico–economic pocket, should be next on the agenda.
But the IPEF in its current form is a weak substitute for an Asia trade strategy and is underwhelming in its delivery of trade benefits in comparison to its predecessor — the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
ASEAN stakeholders are critical of Washington’s lack of people-to-people links. As a summit deliverable, the White House doubled the size of its Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative and announced the US–ASEAN Institute for Rising Leaders at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The new institute will keep a steady flow of up-and-coming ASEAN leaders to Washington. The US government should also increase its focus on exchanges related to climate change, renewable energy and pandemic response, and widen channels for more ASEAN youth to come to the United States for higher education.
The summit brought the US–ASEAN relationship a step closer to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, while fuelling necessary upgrades to other US bilateral ties such as the US–Vietnam relationship.
The United States will fill its long-empty ambassador post to ASEAN with the appointment of Yohannes Abraham, current Chief of Staff and Executive Secretary of the National Security Council. Abraham will be able to channel Washington’s attention towards ASEAN — a quality Washington needs in order to demonstrate its sustained commitment to the region.
Brian Eyler is Director of the Southeast Asia Program and the Energy, Water and Sustainability Program at the Stimson Center. He is also Director of the Southeast Asia Program and the Energy, Water and Sustainability Program at the Stimson Center.
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