11 July 2024

President Joe Biden, mistakenly referring to the host “Cambodia” as “Colombia”, should be forgiven, because he performed very well in Phnom Penh last weekend in further strengthening relations with ASEAN. His in-person attendance at the ASEAN-US and the East Asia summits was an enormous boon to ASEAN’s centrality and the bloc’s relevance. ASEAN is alive and kicking.

As expected, the US has been accorded comprehensive strategic partnership status, on a par with China, Australia and India. For years, US-ASEAN relations were in limbo because of leadership changes and frequent policy shifts. ASEAN has been quite anxious about the US attitude towards the bloc. With Biden at the conference table, confidence in the US has grown. ASEAN was reluctant to upgrade ties with the US during the Trump administration, due to his lack of engagement with the non-military bloc. During his 4-year tenure, he missed all ASEAN-related summits, except the one in the Philippines in 2017 and, even then, he shamelessly left halfway through.

This time around, Biden rebuilt the bloc’s faith in the US. Washington has reaffirmed the direction of US diplomacy towards the Southeast Asian region, which see it providing more investment, trade and security cooperation. In all the meetings with the ASEAN leaders, Biden said the right things, which were music to the ears of the group’s leaders.

Biden knows that China has very close ties and cooperation with all Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN as a whole. Now, China has become the most important trading partner of the region. ASEAN’s economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic will also depend on trade and investment from China.

It was heartening to hear that the US will also increase investment and financial assistance to the region. Biden said that he has requested US$825 million for various connectivity projects across Southeast Asia.

During his meetings with the ASEAN leaders, Biden focused on the US objective in ASEAN, of building the region as a rules-based area with a free, open, stable and prosperous economy and environment.

ASEAN, as the summit in Phnom Penh demonstrated, still has the so-called convening and convincing abilities to engage outside powers. Leaders from the dialogue partners continue to attend dozens of summits and conduct separate bilateral meetings on the side. Each year, the rotational ASEAN chair will have the opportunity to display that country’s greatest assets in human and diplomatic resources.

Biden can now return home with some satisfaction that he has fixed the ties with ASEAN, which were damaged by his predecessor. Now, it is incumbent upon him to put his words into practice.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn