US-ASEAN Summit needs concrete results to be more than a talkshop

US President Joe Biden took part in the ASEAN-US Summit on the sidelines of the 2021 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits held online on a live video conference in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. (Photo by Handout / ASEAN Summit 2021 / AFP)

The leaders of ASEAN countries will meet with US President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. on May 12-13 for a special summit to commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two sides.

It is the second special summit being held in the US since Barack Obama hosted the first one on February 15-16, 2016 in Sunnylands, California. This will be the first in-person engagement between leaders of the two sides since 2017 when then-president Donald Trump attended a summit with ASEAN leaders in Manila.

President Biden extended an invitation to leaders of ASEAN countries for a meeting in person when he attended a virtual summit in October 2021, at which he also announced a $102-million package to engage with Southeast Asia on a wide range of issues, including recovery from COVID-19, health security, climate change, stimulating economic growth and promotion of gender equality.

The summit was originally scheduled for late March but coordinating country Indonesia failed to build a consensus among ASEAN members on the date as many of the members reportedly found it inconvenient to visit the US in just a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Coincidentally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, whose government is implementing US sanctions against Russia, made a bilateral visit to Washington from March 26-April 2. Singapore has been named by Russia in a list of 48 “unfriendly countries”

ASEAN minus 2

ASEAN comprises 10 countries in Southeast Asia, but only eight leaders of the group will travel to Washington for the summit.

In keeping with ASEAN policy, the White House did not extend an invitation to any political leader of the Myanmar ruling junta due to the ongoing crisis in the country and the bloodshed caused by the military coup staged by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on February 1, 2021. Myanmar’s State Administration Council is sending no representative to the summit, either.

Outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is skipping the summit as his country would have already announced its president-elect by the meeting date. Philippines Ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, will represent the country at the gathering. Duterte, who in a departure from previous presidents, never set foot in the US during his six-year presidency, lowered Washington’s importance in his country’s foreign policy priorities and tilted towards China.

The White House statement regarding the summit, issued on April 16, did not provide the agenda for the summit. It simply said that the leaders’ gathering would demonstrate Washington’s enduring commitment to ASEAN. Southeast Asian nations, however, have a wide range of expectations from the summit.

ASEAN’s joint statement on facing common global challenges

Greater cooperation

Cambodia, as the current chair of ASEAN, said in a press statement that leaders of both sides would discuss ways and means to enhance cooperation in various fields, including the response to COVID-19 and global health security, climate change, sustainable development, maritime cooperation, human capital development, education and people-to-people ties, as well as connectivity and economic engagement.

Phnom Penh also called on the US leader to give more attention to ASEAN to demonstrate the grouping’s importance to Washington.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha intends to seek a constructive role by the US in the region, focusing on economic recovery, and the Bio-Circular-Green economic model, which his government would also be championing during Thailand’s 2022 chairmanship of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bangkok.

While the US president is not scheduled to have bilateral meetings with any ASEAN leaders, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh will stay on in the US from May 11-17 as part of his bilateral visit to the US, and the United Nations.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is taking along a big economic delegation including trade and investment ministers and senior officials, to push his economic agenda during the US visit.

ASEAN seeks US support for peace efforts in Ukraine

Packed agenda

Outsiders and observers expect the two-day summit to be more than a photo opportunity and a gala dinner. Global and regional issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, the South China Sea, the Myanmar crisis, COVID-19 recovery plans and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework could be discussed although many leaders have divergent views and stances on the issues.

ASEAN has no common stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, as they have varied interests with Moscow and Washington.

While Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia purchased a significant amount of military hardware from Russia – worth $6.5 billion, $1.6 billion, $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, between 2000-2021 – Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand mostly rely on the US and western countries for their weaponry.

Vietnam and Laos, with strong connections to Moscow since the Soviet era, chose to abstain when resolutions at the UN General Assembly reprimanded Russia for its “aggression against Ukraine”. It is expected that the Biden administration would try to press some key ASEAN members, such as Indonesia and Thailand, to adopt a more critical stance on Russia.

Biden might discuss with ASEAN leaders his newly launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an initiative for economic engagement with the region, but it is hard to expect any breakthrough since the US has offered no clear plan on translating it into reality. The framework is neither a traditional free trade agreement nor an easy market access scheme for ASEAN.

The challenge of such a summit is to emerge with actionable plans, to rise above being a mere talkshop.

By Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk


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