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Symbolism of US-ASEAN summit is its big message, analysts say — Radio Free Asia

The United States is underscoring its commitment to Southeast Asia by hosting a leaders-level summit with ASEAN members in Washington this week, despite grappling with unrest in Ukraine, said analysts.

But Washington is unlikely to come up with a coherent economic strategy to reduce Southeast Asia’s overreliance on China and that will take away some of the shine from the case, they said. added.

US President Joe Biden and his counterparts are likely to discuss Indo-Pacific, Myanmar, Ukraine security and economic relations during the two-day meeting which begins on Thursday. Analysts said they expected little in terms of an outcome, except perhaps a joint statement disapproving of Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

“The importance of the summit is that it happens,” said Bilahari Kausikan, president of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

“The meeting is the message that as a war rages in Ukraine, the United States is holding a summit with ASEAN. It underscores that the United States is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. time,” the former diplomat said during a webinar on Tuesday hosted by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Leaders of eight of the 10 Associations of Southeast Asian Nations are expected – Myanmar’s junta leader was not invited and the Philippines’ incumbent president chose not to attend. The summit, only the second hosted by the United States, commemorates 45 years of ties with ASEAN.

For Greg Poling, Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a big part of this summit is about symbolism — “and symbolism matters in diplomacy.”

“This summit is important because the Indo-Pacific is a priority theater and ASEAN is at the heart of the American Indo-Pacific strategy. President Biden has yet to meet many Southeast Asian leaders in person, so the summit would be an opportunity to do so and show that his commitment to the region is more than just rhetoric,” he said. Poling told BenarNews.

Biden met virtually with his ASEAN counterparts at an October 2021 summit. He met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who came to Washington in March, and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on the sidelines of the Summit. on November 2021 climate in Glasgow.

Southeast Asia is one of Washington’s top priorities, the Biden administration has repeatedly stressed. He sees the region as crucial due to Beijing’s outsized influence. Since last year, top officials including US Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have visited the region.

US President Joe Biden (C) taking part in the ASEAN-US summit on the sidelines of the 2021 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits held online during a video conference live in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, October 26, 2021. Credit: AFP.

Beijing’s concerns

China, for its part, warned ASEAN members against the summit in a statement issued on Sunday after talks between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Cambodian counterpart, this year’s chairman of the regional bloc.

“Steps to introduce Cold War mentality into the region and incite and create confrontation of sides will undermine the peace and development the region has enjoyed for many years. Asian countries must remain vigilant and together reject such moves,” the Chinese said. Foreign Ministry statement mentioned.

US National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell addressed those concerns on Wednesday.

“President Biden will be blunt, he will speak out of a desire to compete peacefully — he doesn’t want Southeast Asia descending into a new Cold War,” Campbell said in an online webinar about the summit. . “We recognize that any initiative simply designed for competition will struggle to gain altitude in Southeast Asia. It must be based on the needs and desires of the people of Southeast Asia.

South China Sea

Southeast Asia analyst Hunter Marston, for his part, expects an end-of-summit statement containing strongly worded language against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.

“ASEAN states are a bit more forward-looking when it comes to a US-ASEAN summit. If you look at the Sunnylands Statementit was much more assertive, [and] more in line with Washington talking points,” said Marston, an international relations analyst at the Australian National University.

He was referring to the 2016 US-ASEAN summit in Sunnylands, California, the first to be held in the United States. His closing statement emphasized mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality of all nations and, in two clauses, a shared commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). .

Analyst Anne Marie Murphy noted that ASEAN has become tougher in terms of language regarding the South China Sea over the past two years.

“So I think you’ll see strong statements in favor not of a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), but of the principles that underpin it,” said Murphy, a professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University.

But since Cambodia, which is pro-China, assumes the ASEAN chairmanship this year, the statement could be watered down, another expert said.

“On SCS, they could make a stronger statement, but there has to be consensus – Cambodia won’t want a stronger statement,” said Josh Kurlantzick, senior Southeast Asia researcher at the Council. on Foreign Relations, at BenarNews.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of non-member ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

While ASEAN member Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing also claims historical rights to parts of the sea that overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Thai protesters demand the release of prisoners charged under the National Lese-Majeste Royal Libel Law during a rally outside the US Embassy in Bangkok ahead of the US-ASEAN summit in Washington, 10 May 2022. Credit: AFP.
Thai protesters demand the release of prisoners charged under the National Lese-Majeste Royal Libel Law during a rally outside the US Embassy in Bangkok ahead of the US-ASEAN summit in Washington, 10 May 2022. Credit: AFP.

Ukraine

Another focal point of the summit will be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts say.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international affairs analyst at the National Agency for Research and Innovation (BRIN) in Indonesia, said it would not be easy for the United States to find common ground on sanctions. with ASEAN members.

“ASEAN countries have their own policies,” she said, noting that some members rely on Moscow for their defense needs or are historically aligned with Russia.

Still, U.S. officials could approach some countries bilaterally, CFR’s Kurlantzick said.

“The administration could try to pressure some important Southeast Asian partners, like Vietnam, to distance themselves further from Russia, and pressure others, like Indonesia and Thailand, to adopt more critical positions as well,” he said.

Burma

Myanmar’s post-coup crisis may top the list of topics discussed at the special US-ASEAN summit, but analysts predict it will fall to the bottom of the expected outcome.

All who spoke to BenarNews said participants would reiterate the unimplemented five-point consensus agreed by Myanmar’s junta and ASEAN leaders in April 2021, just weeks after the 1st coup. February 2021.

“Everyone will nod and reiterate the five-point consensus, that’s it,” said Rand Corp’s Grossman.

The only decision that has harmed the Myanmar military is that ASEAN banned the junta leader, and subsequently junta officials, from last year’s ASEAN summit and other meetings.

Malaysia has been pressuring other ASEAN members to engage with Myanmar’s Civilian Government of National Unity (NUG).

Engaging the NUG as a bloc won’t have many takers, “because ASEAN doesn’t want to take sides in an internal fight,” CSIS’s Poling said.

The missing link

The only area where the summit could make a breakthrough would be in strengthening economic ties – something that won’t happen, analysts said.

“Washington really dropped the ball on this,” said Marston of the Australian National University.

He was referring to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, announced in October 2021 and touted as a game-changer that would rival Beijing’s economic power in the region. The framework was supposed to launch in April, but may have been delayed to next month.

Murphy of Seton Hall agreed that expanding economic ties is something the United States could do to reassure Southeast Asia of its commitment and reduce the region’s vulnerability to Chinese coercion.

However, “since Trump pulled out of the TPP, Biden has been extremely constrained,” she said, referring to the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal forged under the Barack Obama administration and abandoned by his successor. .

Campbell of the US National Security Council defended the Indo-Pacific economic framework.

“I don’t need to tell anyone that trade is politically controversial in the United States, but we have developed an approach that addresses many critical trade and investment challenges – such as trade digital, clean energy, etc. – in a contemporary 21st century setting,” he said.

Campbell said what he’s heard from Southeast Asian officials is that they want economic engagements with a variety of countries, not just one country.

“Constant engagement with their northern neighbour, practical and ongoing engagement with the United States, but also, more of a role with India, they want a role in Europe – they want a diverse relationship,” he said. he declares.

Alvin Prasetyo and Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to this report for BenarNews, an online news service affiliated with RFA.