Trade relations, regional security and the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be high on the agenda when US President Joe Biden receives leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at a conference on May 12-13.

Eight of ASEAN’s 10 leaders will attend a special US-ASEAN summit. Missing will be Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is due to step down in June, and Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, whom ASEAN has expelled in a rare reprimand. In February 2021, the military chief led a coup against Myanmar’s elected civilian government.

The White House has not released many details about the summit, except to say this will demonstrate the “sustained commitment” of the United States to ASEAN.

Although the summit is not expected to bring much substance, observers say the symbolism that Biden will need two days to receive these leaders while Ukraine is at war rallies will confirm that the Indo-Pacific region remains Washington’s priority. Later this month, Biden will travel to Seoul and Tokyo for a four-member summit.

Some key issues to look at from the summit:


Biden is likely to push the Ukrainian question in the pursuit of a coalition against Moscow that goes beyond Europe.

“I would like to note that there was a broad response to the invasion of Ukraine [Russian] The President [Vladimir] Putin and the Russian military, including a number of participating countries, ”White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.

However, regional views on the war are mixed. Myanmar, for example, openly supports Russia, and Singapore was the only ASEAN country to impose sanctions on Moscow. And as many ASEAN members suffer from the war-induced rise in oil, gas, grain and fertilizer prices, ASEAN will come out with calls for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Sarang Shidor, director of research at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Public Administration, warned that in a region bloodied by the Cold War, Biden’s doctrine of confronting democracy with autocracies would not work. The administration must be careful not to provoke regional instincts outside the bloc.

“Ultimately, ASEAN countries do not want a two-bloc world,” he told the Voice of America.

The countries of the region need to diversify their relations with major players, including Russia, to avoid the trap of rivalry between the United States and China, said Aaron Connelly, senior researcher on policy and foreign policy at Southeast Asia International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“To have one of these relations with Russia, potentially lifted by Western sanctions or pressure, is really difficult for them because it will force them to be even more involved in US-China relations, which they are not doing.” I don’t want to, “Connelly told the Voice of America.

A key area for monitoring is whether Washington will push ASEAN leaders to reduce arms purchases from Moscow or threaten them with secondary sanctions on Russian oil. Secondary sanctions, such as those imposed on Iran in 2018, are putting pressure on third-country importing countries to cut back on their purchases or risk being cut off from the U.S. financial system.

Trade relations

Summit presents an opportunity to discuss the deepening of trade relations, is a key part of what ASEAN wants through the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreed in October. ASEAN already has a CSP with China and Australia.

Observers say the United States lacks a sound economic and trade strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The administration has said it will not sign any new free trade agreements; if the protectionist sentiments of the Trump era continue to escalate, opening access to the American market is seen as politically dangerous within the country.

Meanwhile, the region has many free trade options to choose from. ASEAN is negotiations on a free trade agreement with Canadaand some of its members have joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

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Washington is not part of the RCEP, the world’s largest free trade agreement that includes China. Beijing has applied for membership in the CPTPP, a free trade agreement that emerged as a result of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama sought, but Trump refused.

To show its interest in restoring trade relations in the region, the administration is development of its Indo-Pacific economic structure (IPEF), which will include various modules covering “Fair and Sustainable Trade, Sustainability of Supply Chains, Infrastructure and Decarbonisation, and Taxation and Anti-Corruption”. Countries can choose the modules that interest them.

Until now, the regional reception of IPEF has been weak – a problem for the administration. Together, the 10 ASEAN member states make up the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world with a total gross domestic product of $ 2.4 trillion.

“ASEAN countries are really important,” said Mark Millie, senior vice president of US-ASEAN Business Council policy. “If you look at America’s 20-30 major trading partners in the world, six of them are ASEAN members.”

The US is also lagging behind China in another area: infrastructure investment. The launch of the Build Back Better World initiative, announced as a healthier alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road program, has been postponed.

Chinese threat

Against the background of security threats from China, ASEAN countries want to assure that US military support for NATO and Ukraine will not come at the cost of declining commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

The United States is likely to condemn China’s behavior, especially the militarization of islands in the South China Sea. However, different views of ASEAN on China pose a problem.

“Some members – Vietnam, for example the Philippines to a lesser extent – would really like to hear tougher talks about China. Indonesia – to some extent Singapore, of course Malaysia and Thailand – wants to get out of competition between the US and China and keep it on. “Outside the organization, at least in public,” said Gregory Pauling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. needs to respond to both of these demand signals.”

The summit statement is also likely to include standard language on North Korea and the risks of nuclear proliferation. But more attention will be paid to what is said in the statement on Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Recovery from the pandemic

Indonesia, as the host of the Group of 20 summit in November and co-host of the second virtual global summit on COVID-19 next week, intends to pursue a more robust and equitable global pandemic recovery program that includes access to vaccines, testing and therapies.

So far in the US donated 190 million doses of the vaccine to ASEAN countries and other countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

The summit is also expected to build on past investments to combat the pandemic, including a $ 40 million announced in October to accelerate collaborative research and strengthen the health system through the US-ASEAN Health Futures program, an initiative launched under the Trump administration. Another key investment is the regional office of the Southeast Asian Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which opened in August in Hanoi (Vietnam).

However, because the administration’s request for funding for a global response to the pandemic has stalled in Congress, the United States may not be able to offer what the region needs: money to turn vaccine vials into shots into weapons.

Human rights

This will be the first time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, this year’s ASEAN chairman, has stepped into the White House since coming to power in 1985. Activists are concerned that Biden is giving international legitimacy to the former Khmer Rouge commander, whose rule has been marked by corruption, repression and violence.

“If the administration holds this summit and does not publicly express human rights concerns to ASEAN members, it will send a message that human rights abuses will now be largely moderated in the name of building alliances to confront China,” said John Sifton, Asia’s director of propaganda. . in Human Rights Watch, Voice of America reported.

Another problem is Myanmar, which is led by a junta that has staged a coup. While junta leader Min Aung Khlang agreed to comply with ASEAN’s demands to send only non-political representatives to the summit, he largely ignored ASEAN Consensus on Five Points stop the violence and start a dialogue after the deadly unrest after the coup.

Just last month, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken summoned the Myanmar military for crimes against Rohingya Muslims. Observers say the administration will call for tougher steps against Myanmar, but that is unlikely to lead to anything with ASEAN members.

Climate change

Observers say there are untapped opportunities that could combine the administration’s climate change goals with the region’s infrastructure requirements. Several initiatives are planned to be expanded, including the US-ASEAN Climate Futures, a program to help the world limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

ASEAN leaders are scheduled to meet with U.S. Congress leaders and attend a dinner at the White House on Thursday. Leaders of Biden and ASEAN will take part in top-level discussions at the State Department the next day.

It will be the second special summit with ASEAN leaders in the United States since then meeting of then-President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Estate in California. Many welcomed the 2016 summit as the beginning of a new era in Washington’s relationship with one of the world’s most dynamic regions, given the political, cultural and economic diversity of its 10 member states.

Jessica Stone contributed to this report.

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