Special ASEAN Summit Spotlights America’s Southeast Asia Commitment Challenge
Engagement offers an opportunity to leverage individual gains to buttress Washington’s broader presence in the region.
Plans for a special summit between the United States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), set for late March, is a tangible example of the Biden administration’s investment Southeast Asia, a key part of its wider Indo-Pacific strategy. As the administration moves ahead with these steps, it should also look to leverage its individual gains with ASEAN as a way to buttress Washington’s broader commitment to the institution and the region more generally in coming years.
While the United States’ post-World War II Asia policy largely revolved around bilateral arrangements, ASEAN has at times been a multilateral outlet for shoring up U.S. regional commitment. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the United States sought to reshape its regional role following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, some key pillars in U.S.-ASEAN ties were established, including official U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue relations in 1977 and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council in 1984. In the 2000s and 2010s, despite initially spotty U.S. attendance at regional fora, concerns over China prompted attempts to increase U.S.-ASEAN engagement, as evidenced by establishing the U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and Washington joining the East Asia Summit (EAS).
Today, the U.S.-ASEAN relationship is once again seeing a period of fluctuating U.S. commitment. After a period of uncertainty about U.S. steadfastness to Southeast Asia under President Donald Trump and amid China’s continued forays into the region, the Biden administration is trying to shore up U.S. ties with ASEAN as part of a broad-based commitment to the Indo-Pacific. While ASEAN no doubt has its own full plate of regional and global issues (including the South China Sea, Myanmar, and U.S.-China tensions) and challenges to crafting its own approaches to the Indo-Pacific, the digital economy, and sustainability, there are nonetheless steps that Washington can take to leverage individual gains with the grouping as a way to buttress its more comprehensive commitment to Southeast Asia.
First, the United States should continue to increase its overall commitment towards ASEAN in the next few years. The drop-off in Washington’s commitment to ASEAN during the Trump years, relative to the surge under his predecessor President Barack Obama, has cast doubt on the reliability of Washington’s commitment to multilateralism. The Biden administration appears to grasp the baseline reality that even if ASEAN may not be the right vehicle for directly and consistently advancing U.S. geopolitical priorities, including addressing China’s regional assertiveness, it nonetheless has value given the fact that Washington’s Southeast Asian partners view it as an important, albeit imperfect, platform to foster a more stable region in the longer-term. Likewise, no subregion will likely replace its role as the hub of regional architecture anytime soon.
Early moves such as a special U.S.-ASEAN summit and elevated cooperation on Covid-19 and climate change are a start, particularly since several dialogue partners have been stepping up their work with the grouping as well, as evidenced ASEAN raising its ties with both Australia and China to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership last year. The challenge will be ensuring follow through on the announcements already being made, such as the up to $102 million in funding devoted to new initiatives under the four-pillared ASEAN Futures initiative—officially announced during Biden’s participation at the virtual U.S.-ASEAN Summit last October—and expected outcomes in areas such as education and climate at the upcoming Special Summit in Washington, DC. While functional cooperation is a smart way to deepen and focus U.S. engagement with ASEAN and Southeast Asia, it also places even more pressure to follow through.
Second, Washington should ensure that its commitment to ASEAN multilateralism is properly calibrated with new and existing bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral endeavors. The lingering skepticism in parts of the region to U.S. investment in ASEAN multilateralism relative to other mechanisms is no surprise. Washington’s position is fairly recent, and it came to embrace it only gradually due to its traditional preference for bilateral alliances. Regional anxieties on new mechanisms and their challenge to ASEAN’s centrality are also far from recent, as evidenced by some nervousness within ASEAN circles to ideas like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in 1989 or the Asia-Pacific Community conception in 2008.
That calibration can begin by facilitating complementarity between ASEAN multilateralism and other bilateral and minilateral initiatives. The announcement of the Australia-U.S.-UK (AUKUS) trilateral security pact was arguably a missed opportunity on the messaging front in this respect. The brief mention of Southeast Asia and ASEAN in statements and lack of consultation did not capture all three countries’ individual and active engagement with ASEAN as a grouping on other areas of cooperation. On a more positive note, Washington’s recent shaping of the Quad as a mechanism with a growing focus on issues of concern to ASEAN, such as delivering vaccines to Southeast Asia, increases the prospect that the Biden team can find ways to connect the two. The goal, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in his Indo-Pacific speech in Jakarta last year, is to put “ASEAN centrality at the heart of our work with partners.”
Third, Washington should find ways to sustain its commitment to ASEAN beyond the Biden administration’s current term in office. The Trump years offered a reminder that even new commitments made under a previous administration, such as regular U.S. presidential attendance to annual ASEAN summits once the East Asia Summit invited Washington in 2011 or investments in an institutionalized U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership, can easily be weakened or unkept entirely. As such, the Biden team will need to pay keen attention to sustaining the U.S. commitment to ASEAN in the coming years.
That can begin with simple steps. For instance, to end the cycle of last-minute hype around whether a U.S. president can attend these summits during a particular year, the Biden team can advance an annualized process of announcing a decision as early as possible absent a major foreign policy crisis. Accompanied with a presidential absence should be a high-level replacement and other creative alternatives to signal presidential commitment, including virtual remarks, which the Covid-19 pandemic has popularized. Apart from this, the Biden team should also continue to find ways to institutionalize new ministerial meetings in key functional areas within the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership. Beyond the nomenclature of the partnership, new high-level links can play a crucial role in ensuring more broad-based Cabinet-level engagement across future administrations, even if presidential-level commitment wanes in the future.
To be sure, doing all of this has its share of challenges. There is no shortage of uncertainty with respect to ASEAN under Cambodia’s chairmanship in 2022—which, irrespective of the Cambodian government’s protestations, is still haunted by the unprecedented blocking of an ASEAN joint statement over the South China Sea the last time the country chaired the grouping in 2012. And while the Biden team has been able to sustain high-level commitment to ASEAN in spite of the grouping’s difficulties in managing the worsening situation in Myanmar, wider considerations in U.S. domestic and foreign policy could complicate this moving ahead.
The Biden team’s initial ASEAN outreach, and its inclusion of strengthening an “empowered and unified ASEAN” as one of the ten core lines of effort in its Indo-Pacific Strategy action plan, suggests it is serious about this as a priority. The real challenge will be ensuring that advances made can be translated into calibrated and sustained commitments that endure beyond a single administration and survive future ebbs in U.S. engagement.
Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran is a Fellow at the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington, D.C. His new book is Elusive Balances: Shaping U.S.-Southeast Asia Strategy.