11 July 2024

Every year, ASEAN-related summits have one outstanding issue to deal with: the leaders’ attendance. The most problematic has been the US. The key question has been whether the leader of the world’s most powerful country would attend the planned summits.

The latest news from Washington reveals that Biden will not be coming to Jakarta for the 4-7 September ASEAN-related summits, even though he will be in the neighborhood, visiting both India and Vietnam around the same time. The absence has upset the ASEAN chair, Indonesia, which had meticulously planned ahead by moving the usual timetable from November to September, to ensure that the president would be able to attend the G-20 as well. Every ASEAN chair wants to welcome all leaders of the dialogue countries to the bloc’s summits. Vice President Kamala Harris will represent Biden.

Last year, Thailand suffered the same fate. Bangkok changed its timetables to accommodate the American president’s schedules during his visit to Asia for the G-20, ASEAN-related summits and the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting in mid-November. In the end, however, Biden did not show up in Bangkok. Instead, he attended his granddaughter’s wedding.

This time around, official explanations have yet to be provided. Biden’s absence at the ASEAN summits will have negative impacts on overall ASEAN-US relations and US Indo-Pacific strategy.

It has become a pattern in American diplomacy that, whenever Washington makes a strong statement about its commitments, there will be a major turnaround sooner rather than later. For instance, just as US-China ties were improving, Biden criticised Chinese President Xi Jinping as a dictator, spoiling the good momentum that had been generated and resulting in a weakening of relations. Another recent example was in Jakarta. Just as an international conference on the Indo-Pacific Strategy and Southeast Asia was about to wrap up on an extremely optimistic note, the breaking news of Biden’s skipping the ASEAN summits cancelled out all the US officials’ earlier forceful verbal support.

For months, the Biden administration has showcased both the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as tangible indicators that the US is fully committed to and focused on ASEAN and its centrality, as the region will be the centre of growth in the 21st century. Senior American officials and scholars have travelled throughout the region to conduct public diplomacy on these messages.

In ASEAN, attendance counts. It is considered an important diplomatic tool in promoting understanding and forging closer ties among the members and dialogue partners. Biden’s absence shows how unreliable the US has become. Washington can say anything and act differently on any policy at any time. This kind of behaviour will not win favour in the region. In fact, it is self-destructive.

In contrast, China has never missed any participation in the ASEAN summits. Beijing has always viewed ASEAN as a platform on which to build trust, friendship and cooperation. At the summits, the Chinese leaders have used the opportunities to further strengthen ties with the bloc’s member countries, both individually and collectively. Washington could do the same and better, but it chooses not to do so. The US must be blamed for the oversight, which helps to further cement ASEAN ties with China and other dialogue partners.

The US showing up at the ASEAN summit is important, as it allows the ASEAN and US leaders to exchange views and initiate new cooperation to tackle common issues. In defence of Biden’s absence, as well as previous absences, White House and State Department officials often state that the US-ASEAN ties do not depend on the leader’s participation at the ASEAN-related summits, as these involve other “wholesome” aspects of ties and cooperation. It is not a zero-sum game. Well said, indeed, but these are, at best, excuses. Actions speak louder than words.

In the future, the ASEAN leaders should play down the invitation to the US, given that its president’s timetable is hard to agree upon and ASEAN is not a top priority. ASEAN and other key partners should plan their meetings. Any US leader can show up in line with the agreed schedules. As the ASEAN chair and the current coordinator of ASEAN-US relations, Jakarta has learned some tough lessons and discovered that it is hard, even impossible, to do everything to please the US. ASEAN must just recognize the US as it is. Therefore, ASEAN leaders must not waste their time or be anxious about the US president’s attendance.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn