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IFANS Focus ASEAN-US Special Summit 2022: Limited Success and Tasks Ahead CHO Won Deuk Upload Date 2022-06-03 Hits 435
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I. Why Does the Summit Matter?
II. Key Achievements
III. Assessment and Takeaways
Ⅳ. Policy Implications



The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened a special summit on May 12-13, 2022. It was the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history that ASEAN leaders were welcomed together to Washington. The summit holds significance as it came at a time when the security landscape in Europe has changed fundamentally due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden on the occasion of the meeting stressed that the U.S.-ASEAN relationship has entered a “new era,” signaling that America is back in Southeast Asia. 


I. Why Does the Summit Matter?

The U.S. under former President Donald Trump paid relatively little attention to ASEAN. President Trump did not participate in any of the ASEAN-led multilateral summits during his presidency, except for the 2017 U.S.-ASEAN summit. 
    
While the United States neglected ASEAN during the Trump era, China rapidly expanded its political and economic clout in Southeast Asia. ASEAN needed Washington’s active and broad engagement to find a balance in its relationship with the U.S. and China, so the Trump administration’s ASEAN policy came as a great disappointment to the bloc. According to a poll conducted by ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute in Singapore, 68% and 77% of Southeast Asian opinion leaders, in 2019 and 2020 respectively, viewed that U.S. political and economic engagement in ASEAN during the Trump administration had significantly weakened compared to Barack Obama’s administration.
    
But the mood changed after the inauguration of the Biden administration. After Biden’s election as U.S. president, 68.6 percent of respondents in Southeast Asia expected the Biden administration to bolster U.S. engagement in the region, the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute poll found. In this context, the recent special summit held in Washington holds some significance. The U.S. showed its willingness to cooperate with ASEAN by inviting ASEAN leaders to Washington and holding a face-to-face summit. In addition, the summit affirmed that advancing the relationship with ASEAN is the Biden administration’s first step in singling out the Indo-Pacific region as the top foreign policy priority of the U.S., despite the fact that the ongoing war in Ukraine is drawing a significant amount of diplomatic and military resources from the United States. 


II. Key Achievements

The U.S.-ASEAN special summit reaffirmed the importance of continued U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia and U.S.-ASEAN cooperation. President Joe Biden welcomed Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders to Washington with the promise of $150 million in new commitments to the region and proposed a number of initiatives. 
    
First, President Biden and ASEAN agreed to address economic initiatives, with climate action, sustainable development, and inclusive prosperity as core agendas. To advance the economic initiatives, the new U.S. investment in ASEAN nations includes $40 million for clean energy infrastructure. 
    
Second, the Biden administration announced $60 million in new regional maritime initiatives. The U.S. Coast Guard will deploy assets and assign additional personnel to the Indo-Pacific to help meet requests for maritime training and capacity-building, to include a U.S. Coast Guard attaché who will be assigned to the U.S. Mission to ASEAN. Above all, it bears noting that the U.S. has announced its plans to support the capacity-building of ASEAN agencies in the maritime domain, such as collaborating to curb illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and forced labor in the fishing industry. Until now, the U.S. has provided coastal patrol vessels and supported Southeast Asian countries’ capacity-building through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program and Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (SAMSI). 
    
Third, the U.S. pledged continued support to Southeast Asian countries in building the region’s health security. Washington provided over $200 million in COVID-19 assistance through the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region. 
    
Fourth, in the joint vision statement, both sides committed to establishing an ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership at the upcoming ASEAN-U.S. Summit in November 2022. 
    
Fifth, President Biden announced his plans to name Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff to the White House National Security Council, as his ambassador to ASEAN - a post left vacant for more than five years. 
    
The joint vision statement also mentioned the situation in Myanmar and Ukraine; both sides expressed concerns about the latest developments on the ground and underlined the importance of creating an enabling environment for a peaceful resolution.


III. Assessment and Takeaways

At the summit, the Biden administration proposed some new ideas to restore America’s influence in Southeast Asia. The achievements of the summit were somewhat scant, but the two sides agreed on some important measures to deepen cooperation in the years ahead. 
    
First, ASEAN leaders agreed to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership with the U.S. in the second half of this year even though the summit did not deliver the best possible outcomes for the bloc. This appears to be a strategic move to keep China from exerting too much influence over the region - a deeper U.S. engagement in the region, from ASEAN’s perspective, could counterbalance China’s influence in the region. China and ASEAN elevated their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in November 2021 when the two sides held a special summit to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their dialogue partnership.
    
Second, the White House’s nomination of Executive Secretary Yohannes Abraham of the National Security Council, who held several key posts during the Obama administration, for the U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, appears to show that President Biden is intent on sending a message that he puts a high strategic priority on ASEAN. 
    
Third, the Biden administration announced plans to help Southeast Asian countries better fight China’s illegal fishing by deploying the U.S. Coast Guard and patrols boats to promote the region’s maritime security.
     
However, the Biden administration’s summit diplomacy towards ASEAN will likely face several challenges in gaining economic and strategic advantage in the region, which has already been taken by China.
    
First,  President Biden’s promise to provide $150 million to  ASEAN is not so great. In particular, this pledge appears to fall short of ASEAN’s needs and expectations. In contrast, China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries over three years to help fight COVID-19 and fuel economic recovery at the ASEAN-China special summit. In fact, since President Biden took office, experts within ASEAN have underscored the need for U.S. economic engagement to offset China’s excessive economic influence and gain grounds strategically against China in the region. According to a survey of opinion leaders in Southeast Asia conducted in 2022, three-quarters (76%) identify China as the most influential economic power in the region while just 9.8% percent say the same about the U.S.
    
Second, the U.S. has yet to formulate and implement practical and specific strategies to engage in the region economically to the level ASEAN leaders wanted. The U.S. has been tepid about multilateral free trade agreements aimed at expanding ASEAN’s access to the U.S. market. For this reason, ASEAN has expected Washington to present practical trade and investment agendas more proactively. Meanwhile, China has deepened its trade and investment relations with ASEAN through ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), bilateral free trade agreements, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2021, ASEAN’s trade with China reached $87.8 million, more than doubling its trade volume with the U.S. recorded at $36.2 million.
    
Furthermore, ASEAN members also showed half-hearted reactions to the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF),” which the U.S. is ambitiously pursuing instead of multilateral trade agreements, and this was not mentioned in the joint statement. This shows that not all ASEAN member states are necessarily on the same wavelength whether the IPEF can bring real economic benefits to ASEAN as a whole, despite its seven members – except Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – giving the Biden administration another chance.
    
Overall, it seems that the U.S.-ASEAN special summit was not intended to present the practical economic cooperation ASEAN leaders want, but to restore the U.S. presence overshadowed by China’s growing economic and strategic influence in Southeast Asia over the past few years. Therefore, it is not enough to change ASEAN's perception that the recent strengthening of mini-multilateral security cooperation networks led by the U.S. such as the QUAD and AUKUS is weakening ASEAN centrality. If the IPEF, given more weight by the U.S. than multilateral trade agreements, kicks off even with the participation of seven countries within ASEAN and does not generate practical benefits across the entire ASEAN, the U.S. will unlikely regain essential grounds in increasing its influence or presence in Southeast Asia for the time being.
    
However, it is too early to say that the Biden administration’s efforts at the revival of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy faltered. What deserves attention in this regard is what concrete measures the U.S. will offer at the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Cambodia in November. 
 

Ⅳ. Policy Implications

As mentioned above, the U.S.-ASEAN special summit signaled the Biden administration’s resumed efforts at reinvigorating U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia. But the summit was less successful in U.S. endeavor to present the tangible commitments to cooperation that ASEAN wanted. Therefore, ASEAN cannot help but forge alternative cooperative partners in the Indo-Pacific that can play a critical role in offsetting China's excessive economic influence to some extent. In this respect, it is imperative that South Korea play its part as a responsible stakeholder in the region as it can contribute to promoting stability and prosperity of the region by deepening cooperation with ASEAN. Along the way, South Korea could play a pivotal role as a key strategic ally of the U.S. which seeks to regain strategic grounds against China in the Indo-Pacific. 
    
First of all, South Korea has been maintaining close economic relations with ASEAN by participating in the key architectures of economic cooperation such as the ASEAN-ROK FTA, bilateral FTAs with ASEAN countries, and RCEP. In addition, South Korea has contributed to upgrading the Mekong Subregion’s infrastructure, strengthening the region’s capacity building, and promoting sustainable development by forging development cooperation. At this point, it is recommended for South Korea to further develop such economic and development cooperation and remain committed to restoring the “economic balance of power” facing challenges in Southeast Asia. To this end, it is necessary to forge and advance cooperation actively with Australia, Japan, India, and European countries if possible.
    
On top of that, South Korea needs to actively support Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their maritime domain awareness (MDA) and monitoring capabilities required to crack down on illegal fishing activities by providing support - provision of equipment, retired patrol boats, and know-how in underwater search and rescue training. It is forecast that such support will likely link up with Washington’s proposal for promoting maritime security brought up at the U.S.-ASEAN summit, contributing to the consolidation of the comprehensive strategic alliance between the U.S. and South Korea.


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