Commemorating 45 years of relations . . .
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. last Thursday. The long-awaited summit, commemorating 45 years of official diplomatic relations, was the first in-person meeting between a U.S. president and the bloc since 2017. Eight leaders from the 10 ASEAN economies participated, with outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte not present since he will leave his post next month. Myanmar's military leader, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was not invited, given his government’s questionable legitimacy, human rights transgressions, and continued diplomatic ostracization. ASEAN leaders met with senior officials in the U.S. administration, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and senior business leaders to promote investment in their respective countries.
Wooing hearts with cash . . .
At the summit, Biden declared a "new era" in U.S.-ASEAN relations. He reassured the eight leaders present of his administration's commitment to playing an active role in the region and placing the bloc at the "very heart" of Washington's ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Biden also pledged US$150 million to fund ASEAN's infrastructure and maritime security needs. ASEAN leaders were likely hoping to secure trade ties with Washington to support pandemic recovery and further economic development, primarily through the nascent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) put forth by the White House last February. However, both sides did commit to finalizing a mutually beneficial ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership at their next summit in November.
A joint vision, but with limits . . .
The summit resulted in a Joint Vision Statement outlining several commitments to co-operation, particularly in combating COVID-19, strengthening economic ties, supporting digital connectivity and innovation, and addressing climate change. Nonetheless, unfulfilled wishes remain on both sides, including the Biden administration’s desire for ASEAN to take a stronger stance against Russia. While the Statement reaffirms the protection of sovereignty and calls for an end to violence in Ukraine, it falls short of directly condemning Russia. While ASEAN welcomes U.S. investment, the pledge pales in comparison to the US$29.5 billion and US$17 billion invested in the region through China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Experts think ASEAN will likely not enjoy greater market access to the U.S. through IPEF, which would cater to U.S. protectionist sentiments and focus on norms and standards setting rather than trade liberalization. Biden will continue to shore up relations across the Pacific when he visits Japan and South Korea in the coming weeks.
- Bangkok Post: Biden heralds ‘new era’ in US-ASEAN ties
- Nikkei Asia: Biden greets ASEAN leaders with $150m investment pledge
- The Phnom Penh Post: ASEAN, US forge comprehensive strategic partnership