US-Asean summit: Will Biden pitch his new ‘China challenge’ strategy at Washington meet?

  • One analyst believes Washington’s ability to host an in-person, leaders-level summit at a time when China cannot due to Covid is a ‘symbolic win for the US’
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he will detail a long-awaited national security strategy to deal with the emergence of China as a great power

United States President Joe Biden will meet his counterparts from Southeast Asia for a special summit in Washington next month, but getting all the leaders of the regional bloc to attend still appears in doubt.

The meeting which will be held with heads of Asean, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on May 12 and 13 will demonstrate Washington’s commitment to the regional bloc.

The summit will officially commemorate the 45-year relationship between the two sides. It will also be Biden’s first in-person meeting with his Southeast Asian counterparts, following his participation in a virtual Asean-US summit in October.

US President Joe Biden (centre) takes part in the Asean-US Summit on the sidelines of the 2021 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in October 2021. Photo: AFP

The summit originally scheduled for March was postponed due to scheduling problems.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political science professor in Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University said the conference’s arrangements felt “hasty”.

“It is as if the Biden Administration wants to tick boxes for continuing what Obama started and for keeping Asean on [the] side in view of China’s assertiveness,” Pongsudhirak said, referring to Barack Obama’s efforts to pivot to the region during the former US president’s term in office.

Who will attend?

While most Southeast Asian heads of government are expected to attend, Myanmar’s junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will be excluded due to the regime’s failure to make progress on a peace plan and the continuation of violence against the Myanmar people.

Charles Santiago, chairman of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said not inviting the junta was the right decision, because it is not recognised internationally as Myanmar’s rightful government.

However, shunning the illegal junta is not enough, Santiago said, noting the US and Asean should have taken the opportunity to invite the National Unity Government comprising elected lawmakers ousted in the coup.

Outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a frequent critic of the US, may also not attend.

Tan See Seng, research adviser at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore said the likely absence of some leaders will not be a concern for the US, as the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia strategy has been on the key Asean states “[which] are arguably Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore, whose leaders, barring unexpected changes, will be at the summit.”

Hanh Nguyen, a non-resident WSD Handa fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum, said the “incomplete guest list” is a sign that US cooperation with Asean members under the Biden administration continues to be uneven.

“Countries that consider cooperation with the US a priority will definitely attend the summit and are more susceptible to cooperation,” Hanh said, adding the opposite is true for countries whose strategic alignment is closer to China.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (centre) attends the Asean – East Asia Summit on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in October 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE

Charles Dunst, an associate at The Asia Group and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said even if Duterte and Min Aung Hlaing do not attend, getting leaders from eight of 10 countries to take part will be considered a success.

“Duterte could still attend, though; nothing has been ruled out,” Dunst said, adding the US may also invite a representative from Myanmar’s embassy in Washington, “although the expectation is that they will decline”.

Chulalongkorn University’s Pongsudhirak said without the full set of Asean leaders there, the impression could be of an Asean in “disarray”.

It will also give the impression of Biden’s “veiled desperation to keep its Indo-Pacific strategy on track in view of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” added Pongsudhirak.

Under Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the US said it would build a free and open Indo-Pacific while bolstering security and building resilience with its allies and partners, while perceiving China as a threat to these objectives.

Countering China

While the meeting will build on Biden’s participation at a similar summit last year, many analysts say the high-level meeting is a way to counter China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he will soon address a long-awaited national security strategy to deal with the emergence of China as a great power.

After more than a year in office, the Biden administration has faced criticism for lacking a formal strategy for dealing with China, the world’s second- largest economy and Washington’s main strategic competitor.

China’s bilateral trade with Southeast Asia topped US$685 billion in 2020, almost twice that between US and Asean, alongside rising Chinese investments in the region such as the US$5.9 billion China-Laos Railway.

The national flags of the various countries attending the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit are displayed in Bangkok in November 2019. Photo: AFP

Last October during the US-Asean summit, Washington announced US$102 million in new initiatives to expand US engagement with Southeast Asia on Covid recovery and health security, fight climate change, and stimulate broad-based economic growth.

At the end of last month, just when the originally scheduled US-Asean summit was supposed to have been held, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met counterparts from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the meetings were proof of “the close and friendly relations between China and its Asean neighbours and the high importance all sides attach to advancing China-Asean cooperation.”

A China Daily article last week quoted mainly Chinese analysts as saying that Southeast Asian countries “should not be turned into chess pieces for a major-power rivalry” in the lead-up to the US-Asean summit next month.

Pointing out that the summit has “a strong symbolic nature” Pacific Forum’s Hanh said the meeting is also being held to reassure Southeast Asia that “the US will not be distracted by the war in Ukraine and the looming threat of Russia over European security.”

Hanh says the US has a reputation of a distracted superpower among Southeast Asian nations, so this summit could re-engage Washington’s commitment with Asean. Former US administration’s previously ignored the region due to its focus on security in the post 9/11 era, or in the case of former president Donald Trump just skipped summits entirely.

Dunst from The Asia Group and CSIS said that being able to host an in-person, leaders-level summit at a moment when China cannot due to Covid is a “symbolic win for the US”.

Major deliverables unlikely

While Southeast Asia is keen to see tangible progress on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), experts said further details are unlikely to be unveiled during the summit.

A US-led initiative widely seen as an effort to counter China’s influence, the IPEF is expected to contain elements ranging from fair trade, including labour and environmental issues, to secure supply chains, infrastructure, clean energy and digital trade.

Tan from RSIS said the summit will be an opportunity for the Biden administration to present and elaborate on the IPEF and its ostensible benefits for Asean states and the region.

Pacific Forum’s Hanh said that Southeast Asian countries are concerned the framework might include demands from the US on fair trade, decarbonisation, tax, and anti-corruption, but does not offer them market access to the US.

Author: Maria Siow, SCMP

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