US-ASEAN summit’s symbolism is its big message, analysts say

Shailaja Neelakantan
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US-ASEAN summit’s symbolism is its big message, analysts say U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, N.C., on April 14, 2022.

The United States is highlighting its commitment to Southeast Asia by holding a leader-level summit with ASEAN members this week in Washington despite being in the midst of dealing with the Ukraine turmoil, analysts said.

But Washington is not likely to present a coherent economic strategy to reduce Southeast Asia’s overreliance on China and that will take some of the shine off the affair, they added.

U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts will likely discuss Indo-Pacific security, Myanmar, Ukraine and economic ties during the two-day meeting beginning Thursday. Analysts said they expect little in terms of outcome, barring perhaps a joint statement frowning on Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

“The significance of the summit is that it is being held,” said Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

“The meeting is the message, that while a war is raging in Ukraine, the U.S. is holding a summit with ASEAN. It underscores that the U.S. is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time,” said the former diplomat speaking at a webinar on Tuesday hosted by The Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Leaders from eight of 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations are expected to attend – the Myanmar junta’s leader has not been invited, and the Philippines’ outgoing president chose not to attend. The summit, only the second hosted by the United States, commemorates 45 years of ties with ASEAN.

For Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, much of this summit is about symbolism – “and symbolism matters in diplomacy.”

“This summit is a big deal because the Indo-Pacific is a priority theater and ASEAN is central to the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy. President Biden has yet to meet many of the Southeast Asian leaders in person, so the summit would be an opportunity to do that and will show that his commitment to the region is more than just rhetoric,” Poling told BenarNews.

Biden met virtually with his ASEAN counterparts during an October 2021 summit. He has met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who came to Washington in March, and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on the sidelines of the November 2021 Climate Summit in Glasgow.

Southeast Asia is one of Washington’s top priorities, the Biden administration has stressed time and again. It sees the area as crucial due to Beijing’s outsized influence there. Since last year, top officials including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have visited the region.

Beijing’s concerns

China, for its part, has cautioned ASEAN members about the summit through a statement issued Sunday after talks between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterpart in Cambodia, this year’s chair of the regional bloc.

“The moves to introduce the Cold War mentality into the region and incite and create camp confrontation will undermine the peace and development that the region has enjoyed for many years. Asian countries should stay vigilant and reject such moves together,” the Chinese foreign ministry statement said.

Kurt Campbell, the U.S. National Security Council's coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, countered those concerns on Wednesday.

“President Biden will be direct, he will talk about a desire to compete peacefully – he does not want Southeast Asia to descend into a new Cold War,” Campbell said in an online webinar about the summit. “We recognize that any initiative simply designed for competition will have difficulty gaining altitude in Southeast Asia. It must be based on the needs and desires of Southeast Asian people.”

South China Sea

Southeast Asia analyst Hunter Marston, for one, expects an end-of-summit statement containing strongly worded language against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN states are a little more forward-leaning when it comes to a U.S.-ASEAN summit. If you look at the Sunnylands Declaration, it was a lot more assertive, [and] more in line with Washington’s talking points,” said Marston, an international relations analyst at Australian National University.

He was referring to the 2016 U.S-ASEAN summit at the Sunnylands estate in southern California, the first held in the United States. Its closing statement underlined mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and equality of all nations, and, in two clauses, a shared commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Analyst Anne Marie Murphy noted that ASEAN has become tougher in terms of language regarding the South China Sea over the last couple of years.

“So I do think you will see strong statements in support not of a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), but for principles underlying it,” said Murphy, a professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations.

But since Cambodia, which is pro-China, serves as ASEAN chair this year, the statement may be watered down, another expert said.

“On SCS, they might make a stronger statement, but there has to be consensus – Cambodia won’t want a stronger statement,” Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BenarNews.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and non-member Taiwan.

While ASEAN member Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone as well.


Another focus of the summit will be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the analysts.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international affairs analyst at the state-funded National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) in Indonesia, said it was not going to be easy for the U.S. to find common ground on sanctions with ASEAN members.

“ASEAN countries have their own policies,” she said, noting that some members rely on Moscow for defense needs or are historically aligned to Russia.

Still, U.S. officials could approach some countries bilaterally, CFR’s Kurlantzick said.

“The administration may try to press some important Southeast Asian partners, like Vietnam, to distance themselves more from Russia, and press others, such as Indonesia and Thailand, to adopt more critical stances as well,” he said.

Thai protesters call for the release of prisoners charged under the nation’s Lese-Majeste royal defamation law during a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok ahead of the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Washington, May 10, 2022. [AFP]


The post-coup crisis in Myanmar may be on top of the list of subjects discussed at the U.S.-ASEAN special summit, but analysts predict it will fall to the bottom of expected outcomes.

All who spoke to BenarNews said participants would reiterate the unimplemented five-point consensus agreed to by the Myanmar junta and ASEAN leaders in April 2021, just weeks after the Feb. 1, 2021, coup.

“Everyone will nod their heads and reiterate the five-point consensus, that’s it,” said Derek J. Grossman, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp.

The only move that has hurt the Myanmar military is ASEAN barring the junta leader, and junta representatives, from last year’s ASEAN summit and other meetings.

Malaysia has been pressing other ASEAN members to engage with the opposition civilian National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar.

Engaging NUG as a bloc will not have many takers, “because ASEAN doesn’t want to pick sides in an internal fight,” CSIS’s Poling said.

The missing link

The one area where the summit could have had a breakthrough would have been in furthering economic ties, the analysts said.

“Washington has really dropped the ball on this,” Australian National University’s Marston said.

He was referring to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, announced in October 2021 and touted as a game changer that would rival Beijing’s economic might in the region. The framework was to be launched in April, but has been delayed perhaps until next month.

Murphy, of Seton Hall, agreed that expanding economic ties is one thing the United States could do to reassure Southeast Asia of its commitment and reduce the region’s vulnerability to Chinese coercion.

However, “since Trump withdrew from the TPP, Biden is extremely constrained,” she said, referring to the massive Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal forged during the Barack Obama administration and dropped by his successor.

Campbell, of the U.S. National Security Council, defended the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

“I don’t need to tell anyone trade is politically contentious in the U.S., but we have constructed an approach that meets many critical challenges of trade and investment – such as digital trade, clean energy and the like – in a contemporary, 21st Century setting,” he said.

Campbell said that what he has heard from Southeast Asian officials is that they want economic engagements with a variety of countries, not just with one country.

“Steady engagement with their neighbor in the north, practical and continual engagement with the U.S., but also, more of a role with India, they want a role Europe – they want diversified relations,” he said.

Alvin Prasetyo and Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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