WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden will host Southeast Asian leaders in Washington this week, seeking to show his administration remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China despite the Ukraine crisis.
A two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) begins with a White House dinner on Thursday before talks at the State Department on Friday.
It will be the first time leaders of ASEAN, created in some of the darkest days of the Cold War, gather as a group at the White House. President Barack Obama was the last U.S. leader to host them, at Sunnylands in California in 2016.
Up to eight ASEAN leaders are expected. Myanmar’s leader has been excluded over a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election.
The summit takes place ahead of Biden’s May 20-24 visit to South Korea and Japan, which includes a plan to meet fellow leaders of the Quad countries - Australia, India and Japan - who share U.S. concerns about China’s ambitions to expand its influence in the region and globally.
Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell spoke at a think tank on Wednesday of a deep sense in the administration of the need not to be distracted from the Indo-Pacific, and said it would seek to increase U.S. investment and engagement in ASEAN countries.
He said China, Myanmar, Taiwan and Ukraine would be among the issues discussed.
“We believe it’s critical for other countries to both publicly and privately underscore that what has taken place in Ukraine must never happen in Asia,” he said, referring to China’s threats to retake Taiwan by force if necessary.
Campbell acknowledged critiques that U.S. engagement with ASEAN had waned in many important areas.
“We have to send a signal that the United States will be a steady partner, and that our strategic interests push us and point us into playing a larger role over time,” he said.
Campbell said on Monday there would be “substantial” discussions with ASEAN on technology, education, infrastructure, and that Washington would soon announce plans to better battle illegal fishing in the Pacific.
Kate Rebholz, acting U.S. ambassador to ASEAN said the summit would bring “an ambitious and forward-looking U.S.-ASEAN vision statement” and new initiatives, including partnerships in public health, climate and economic growth.
Even if the summit is largely symbolic and no dramatic advances are to be expected, analysts and diplomats said the fact it was taking place aimed to show that China remains a leading U.S. long-term foreign policy challenge, regardless of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
They said it would likely elevate the current U.S.-ASEAN “strategic partnership” by adding a word to make it a “comprehensive” strategic partnership, bringing it into line with the description of ASEAN’s ties with Australia and China.
“The meeting is the message … that the U.S. is in fact capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, and it’s not distracted,” Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s foreign ministry, told the Stimson Center think tank on Monday.
U.S. ‘falls flat’ on economics
ASEAN countries also share concerns about China and are broadly keen to boost ties with Washington, but they have been frustrated by a U.S. delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.
At a virtual summit with ASEAN last October, Biden said Washington would start talks about developing a regional economic framework, but diplomats say this is likely to feature only peripherally this week.
Japan’s Washington ambassador said Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is likely to be formally launched in Japan, but its details were still under discussion.
Analysts and diplomats say only two of the 10 ASEAN countries - Singapore and the Philippines - are expected to be among the initial group of counties to sign up for the negotiations under IPEF, which does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries crave, given Biden’s concern for American jobs.
There has also been some frustration that ASEAN leaders will get little personal time with Biden, with no bilateral meetings announced.
An adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since 1985 but making his first White House visit, told Reuters Biden should spend more time with leaders if serious about elevating ties with the region.
The adviser, Kao Kim Hourn, said Cambodia, which has close economic ties to China, would not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing although U.S. investment in his country was growing. ASEAN, likewise, worked with both under its principle of “inclusiveness,” he said.
Analysts say that even though ASEAN countries share U.S. concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and limited U.S. economic incentives.
“The U.S. does a pretty solid job on politics and security, but it falls flat on economics,” said Gregory Poling of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It cannot effectively compete with China If it only brings guns and diplomacy to the table. It has to bring cash to put it bluntly, and we’ve not been good at doing that.”