Today, as President Biden meets with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, the administration looks to reaffirm key strategic relationships amid increasing influence from China. Center for a New American Security experts weighed in on the implications of this special summit for Indo-Pacific security.
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Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:
Today, Southeast Asia is the most contested of all Indo-Pacific regions. There, the competition between China and the United States churns in earnest, with markets, diplomatic alignments, and military access all up for grabs. As a result, today’s U.S.-ASEAN summit represents a useful step in the right direction. The White House gathering signals Southeast Asia’s enduring importance to an administration generally consumed by the war in Ukraine.
Also welcome is the pledge of $150 million in U.S. investment, focused on infrastructure, security, and pandemic response across the region. And yet the announcement will draw uncomfortable comparisons. Last November, China pledged $1.5 billion—10 times today’s U.S. figure—to ASEAN over three years. This week, Congress is busily approving $40 billion in aid to Ukraine. That assistance is entirely warranted, but the contrast with Southeast Asia, identified by Washington as a priority region, remains stark. To complicate matters further, the United States lacks a trade policy in Asia, the region where it matters most.
Today’s summit is a good step. It should be just that—a step in a longer process of deeper American engagement with key countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The region is on the move.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Today’s ASEAN Summit—the first with the United States in nearly five years—should go a long way in demonstrating the importance Washington attaches to the organization and region, despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Washington’s recognition of ASEAN’s critical role is also necessary due to ASEAN nations’ apprehension about the Quad becoming the new focal point for Washington’s engagement in the region. The Quad members have gone to great lengths to emphasize the centrality of ASEAN in their joint statements, but the face-to-face engagements with President Biden will help prove Washington is serious about its commitment to Southeast Asia.
The ASEAN countries are particularly concerned about Washington’s lack of a proactive economic strategy toward the region. Today’s announcement of $150 million in new investments on infrastructure, public health, and maritime security will help to some degree but a deeper, more comprehensive economic approach to the region is necessary. For its part, Washington has been disappointed with ASEAN’s failure to take a strong and consistent role in support of a return to democracy in Myanmar following last year’s coup. If the United States wants to see the region’s policies align more closely with its own in the future, it must sustain the momentum that will be created by today’s meeting through continued economic, political, and military presence and engagement throughout the region.
Jacob Stokes, Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The countries of Southeast Asia will play a pivotal role in shaping the character of regional order in the Indo-Pacific in the coming decades. The path that ASEAN states choose on a range of issues will similarly shape strategic competition between the United States and China. Beijing has made major inroads in Southeast Asia in recent decades, especially on trade, investment, and technology. But China’s position in the region has weaknesses, too. Beijing’s assertiveness on maritime territorial disputes and rejection of international law continues to cause a major rift with other South China Sea claimant states. The record of Belt and Road infrastructure projects is decidedly mixed, a broader slowdown in the Chinese economy will likely reduce outbound investment, and China’s reputation for effective handling of the pandemic is quickly faltering. In this environment, there is an opportunity for Washington and like-minded allies and partners to regain momentum with ASEAN by offering attractive alternatives that can help solve the most pressing challenges Southeast Asian states face. With this summit, the Biden administration has made a major investment in relations with ASEAN partners to do just that.
Joshua Fitt, Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
As ASEAN leaders convene for the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN summit to take place in Washington, President Biden has an opportunity to prove his administration means what it says about deepening relationships with partners in the region. The White House has already released a fact sheet detailing the ambitious agenda of new climate, education, maritime, and health initiatives that could set the tone for a renewed focus on being present where it matters most—on issues that directly fill the most pressing needs of the people of Southeast Asia. A positive agenda from the White House is sure to stand in contrast to growing concerns from many ASEAN member states about increasingly assertive pressure from China.