The historic summit between the US and ASEAN took place recently in Washington. It was the first time the leaders of ASEAN member states were invited as collective guests of the US. Over the years, the US has continued to deepen its partnership with Southeast Asian countries. ASEAN is the fourth largest market in the world, and the US is ASEAN’s largest source of foreign direct investment, with the bilateral trade volume exceeding $360 billion in 2020. It cannot be denied that Washington still has a huge influence in the Southeast Asian region, although such influence has weakened over recent years.
There are many reasons for this change. One of the important facts is the improvement of China’s soft and hard power, especially its economic and technological strength. Another reason is that the US has adjusted its policy toward China and has led to an overall intensification of competition in many fields. Southeast Asian countries are becoming more cautious about getting involved in the game of great powers. Although the Biden administration proposed a new version of the Indo-Pacific strategy in February this year, this strategy still has obvious shortcomings in the economic field. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict and changes in the security situation in Europe have also affected Washington’s strategy and resource investment in Southeast Asia.
The economic agenda is one of the focal points. Washington believes that Beijing’s strong economic influence in the region poses a serious challenge to its dominance, so it must strengthen economic ties with the region. It hopes to use the summit to further strengthen consultations with ASEAN countries on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and win ASEAN’s support. From China’s view, the Biden administration has not shied away from looking at Southeast Asia from the perspective of US-China strategic competition, and the summit is full of hidden issues regarding Sino-US competition. The summit can be viewed as an important step for the US to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy. But Washington is trying to downplay the geopolitical overtones of the summit, as seen in White House briefings and speeches from Biden, Harris and Pelosi. The reason may be that the US needs to consider the feelings of ASEAN, and to highlight the openness and inclusiveness of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
It is worth noting that, recently, Chinese officials and scholars have made extensive and persistent criticism of the US practice on inciting camp confrontation and establishing small groups around the world. Some ASEAN countries also expressed concern about the division of the international community and the resurgence of the Cold War mentality. Although Washington has repeatedly emphasized its support for ASEAN centrality, what the US has done in diplomatic practice is to maximize the instrumental value of ASEAN countries. Another noteworthy detail is that the US ambassador to ASEAN had been vacant for many years, and Biden did not hold separate bilateral meetings with ASEAN leaders at this summit. The US strengthens its alliances and builds small multilateral mechanisms in the region with QUAD and AUKUS as main pillars, which in fact weakens ASEAN’s centrality in regional security affairs. Such an approach can hardly be regarded as a respect attitude for ASEAN. The starting point of it is not the common interests of Southeast Asia, but the strategic interests of Washington in reshaping China’s surrounding environment.
At the summit, the US put forward cooperation initiatives for ASEAN in many fields, including climate change, clean energy and transportation infrastructure, space cooperation, digital economy development, people-to-people and cultural exchanges and higher education, maritime and law enforcement, and medical cooperation. Behind this variety of cooperation projects is the relatively limited US investment in Southeast Asia. The $150 million that Biden announced for ASEAN is far less than the amount of aid that the US Congress has planned for Ukraine. If it is averaged to ten ASEAN countries, the amount will be even more insufficient. For comparison, in the first four months of this year, the bilateral trade volume between China and ASEAN reached nearly 290 billion US dollars, a year-on-year increase of 9.4%.
At present, the main concern facing ASEAN countries is still to achieve economic recovery and improve people’s livelihood as soon as possible in the context of the epidemic. The above cooperation initiative undoubtedly outlines a promising prospect for the cooperation between the US and ASEAN, but it is also full of uncertainty as to what extent it can meet the practical needs of ASEAN countries in the short and medium term. In essence, this approach has not overcome the shortcomings of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, that is, it lacks a systematic and pragmatic cooperation concept and feasible path in the economic field, and it is difficult to effectively connect with the development strategies of ASEAN countries.
Among these initiatives, maritime and law enforcement, medical cooperation and higher education are mostly continuations and expansions of previous cooperation. Investment in smart infrastructure may be attractive to ASEAN countries, but in terms of improving infrastructure conditions, most ASEAN countries currently do not have the urgent need and economic guarantee to promote the development of smart infrastructure.
As for more specific cooperation projects such as private sector training and elite talent training, the actual beneficiaries are not the people of ASEAN countries, not even the ruling authorities, but more likely pro-American people among the elites of these countries.
It is worth noting that maritime cooperation is presented as a separate item in the list of outcomes and the joint statement. In this area, Washington announced $60 million for a new regional maritime program, most of which will be led primarily by the US Coast Guard (USCG), including personnel and equipment deployment, combating IUU fishing, equipment assistance and staff training. This reflects that the United States takes this as a key concern and indicates that the US Coast Guard will be more involved in maritime security affairs in the South China Sea in the future.
US maritime cooperation with ASEAN builds on US allies and partnerships in the region and has become a priority area of cooperation in recent years. During talks with ASEAN leaders, Harris also mentioned the importance of safeguarding freedom of navigation and international law. Considering that China and some countries have disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation in the South China Sea, the US move also aims to contain China’s activities in the South China Sea and win over other parties to the dispute.
From next month, China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand will successively host the BRICS Summit, the Leaders’ Meetings on East Asian Cooperation, the G20 Summit and the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, ushering in an Asian moment for the global governance.
For the past decades, the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture has formed in East Asia, which is the key to maintaining peace and stability in the region. A week before the US-ASEAN summit, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand issued a joint press communiqué, stressing that the international community should meet challenges in solidarity and develop in an open and inclusive manner. This conforms to the unanimous will of all countries in the world to oppose bloc confrontation and promote stability and prosperity together.
The world today is confronted with a choice between solidarity and division, between cooperation and confrontation. The Cold War mentality will only undermine the global peace framework, and bloc confrontation will only exacerbate the security challenges of the 21st century. In this sense, no matter what regional strategy is proposed, the purpose should be mutual benefit and win-win results rather than a zero-sum game.