Why it will be difficult for Biden to woo Southeast Asia


And many in the region doubt America’s long-term commitment to Asia. President Barack Obama promised a “pivot to Asia” in 2011, but conflicts in the Middle East quickly derailed that plan.

Biden is under pressure to deliver on his promise to leaders of Southeast Asian nations of “a new era in US-ASEAN relations” at a meeting in DC in May. For the administration, that means wooing ASEAN countries away from highly lucrative trade with China with more US aid in areas such as climate action, health and energy.

But the 10 ASEAN members are a disparate group whose priorities often don’t align with Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Its goal of “strengthening democratic institutions, the rule of law and responsible democratic governance” is anathema to the dictatorial regimes of Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, most of which are reliable allies of Beijing.

The United States has managed to forge formal and informal alliances with a number of ASEAN members, including Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of which are concerned about Chinese dominance in the region.

But even some ASEAN members who are ideologically aligned with the United States have reservations about trusting Biden. Across the region, skepticism is growing about whether the 2024 election could bring a president who doesn’t want to follow Biden’s lead, said Scot Marciel, former senior deputy assistant secretary for East Asia. and the Pacific at the State Department, who speaks regularly to regional officials.

And they certainly don’t want to risk China restricting imports.

“Southeast Asians are perpetually concerned about competition and tensions between the United States and China,” Marciel said. “They don’t want to be forced to choose.”

U.S.-ASEAN relations are a key part of Biden’s goal to strengthen what Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls “the rules-based international order.”

The administration has tried to show its commitment to the region with the appointment in May of senior national security official Yohannes Abraham as US ambassador to ASEAN, a position that has been vacant for five years. And Biden’s decision to attend the summit in person – while Chinese President Xi Jinping stays home and sends outgoing Prime Minister Li Keqiang – could give the US president a competitive edge.

“Showing up is a big deal in ASEAN and getting the president to go to [the summit] is actually the most important thing,” said Ted Osius, chairman of the US-ASEAN Business Council. Abraham, meanwhile, “can literally pick up the phone and call President Biden and say, ‘I need your help, Mr. President.’ It’s important,” Osius said.

Biden’s immediate challenge is Southeast Asian leaders’ relative disappointment with the special U.S.-ASEAN summit in May. That event was long rhetoric about the “centrality of ASEAN”, but the US pledge of a relatively paltry $150 million – split among the 10 members – to “deepen relations between the United States and the ‘ASEAN’ undermined this message.

The event also lacked initiatives to improve U.S.-ASEAN trade relations, delayed by President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership trade grouping in 2017. The Biden administration avoided the successor to the TPP as well as an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement due to deepening protectionist sentiment within both parties on Capitol Hill.

The Biden administration instead invited seven of the ASEAN members to join its new regional economic grouping – the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The IPEF focuses on cooperation in areas such as trade facilitation, clean energy and anti-corruption, but blocks ASEAN countries’ access to the US market.

Still, Biden’s decision to approach the group collectively could be a boon as it contrasts with China’s sharper tactics with individual countries.

“When China negotiates with the region, it seeks to do so on a bilateral, individual basis, because that is when China is strongest,” said Piper Campbell, former head of the US mission. to ASEAN based in Jakarta, Indonesia. The United States “chooses to sit down with a community to talk together as a community about things like standards and to agree on them together.”

Yet the IPEF is unlikely to put a stop to the booming China-ASEAN trade and the influence it wields over Beijing. The value of China-ASEAN trade soared 28% to $878 billion in 2021. That’s nearly double the $441 billion in total trade between the United States and the ASEAN bloc in the year. last. And Beijing is determined to widen this gap. Xi instructed Li to “accelerate negotiations of a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area 3.0” during his meetings in Phnom Penh, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week.

The United States could form a regional supply chain coalition that explicitly excludes China, but makes ASEAN members nervous.

“We believe a more stable, constructive and peaceful setup is for the US and China to have overlapping circles of friends,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said ahead of the summit. .

Biden will unveil a strategic partnership agreement between the United States and ASEAN at the summit. Details are scant beyond a commitment to “expanded ministerial-level engagement” in areas such as climate, transport and women’s empowerment. The deal “is important because of the symbolism,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said last month.

Part of this symbolism is its implicit challenge to the “ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity”. The deal channeled massive Chinese investment into the region through projects including a $5.9 billion China-Laos railway and the $7.9 billion high-speed train project in Indonesia.

The United States, however, is ASEAN’s largest source of foreign direct investment and clearly wishes to protect this competitive advantage.

“It’s the diplomatic equivalent of one-upmanship,” said Campbell, who is also the administrative director of the ASEAN Studies Initiative at the American university.

But focusing on a perceived Chinese threat at this week’s summit could backfire.

“When we talk to Southeast Asians, they don’t just want to hear about China – they want to know what you’re going to do with it. [them]said Marciel, who is also a fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “The message for the Biden administration is this: don’t make your encounters with Southeast Asians all about China — it has to be about the real relationship.”


Politico

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