In a few days from now, President Biden will host the ASEAN leaders in Washington for the ASEAN-US Summit to celebrate 45 years of their ties. The rescheduled Summit (earlier planned for March 28 and 29) is a significant demonstration of US’ “enduring commitment to ASEAN”.  The statement  of White House’s press secretary Jen Psaki has noted that “it is a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration to serve as a strong, reliable partner in Southeast Asia.”

This should be quite soothing to the ASEAN Member States, given that some of them have been under pressure, particularly Cambodia, the current Chair of the ASEAN, to evaluate the primacy of its engagements with China in the context of augmentation of infrastructure at Cambodia’s Ream naval base including funding for “construction work and deeper port facilities” to support “docking of larger military ships”. Consequently, the US had announced sanctions against Cambodia. Notwithstanding that, Prime Minister Hun Sen has confirmed his participation in the Summit, and stated that he is “ confident that the Special Summit will serve as an excellent opportunity for us to discuss [opportunities of] further enhancing our cooperation, and exchange views on issues of common concern and interest to both ASEAN and the US.” 

Similarly, the Philippines under President Duterte has been under US scrutiny due his closer ties with China notwithstanding his country having disputes in the South China Sea. Also, Philippine leadership can be expected to give the Summit a pass due to elections at home (9 May  2022) and it is “customary for any Filipino leader to avoid foreign travel during an election season.” 

Besides there are issues about Myanmar and the US prefers “a non-political representative from Burma to the summit.”  According to US’ State Department spokesperson, the “regime has failed to make meaningful progress on ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus and should be held accountable.”

Be that as it may, at least three issues can be expected on the agenda at the Summit. First is about China and the South China Sea. The Press Statement by the Chairman of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat (AMM Retreat) held on 16-17 February 2022 discussed the situation in the South China Sea and some Ministers expressed concerns on the “land reclamations, activities, incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment” which had “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.” Without naming China, the Block had reiterated the primacy of 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force. The US can be expected to pressurize the claimant States to take a more assertive stand on the South China Sea and assure them of the necessary politico-diplomatic and strategic support. 

The second issue would be about US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. In the past, many US high level visitors have urged their hosts in the ASEAN countries to explore opportunities for cooperation. Washington has promised and even delivered several capacity building programmes in support of the evolving Indo-Pacific order. However, the ASEAN is driven by its own ASEAN Outlook for Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which pivots on ASEAN Centrality. It is “guided by the purposes and principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC)” and supports “ASEAN’s Community building process and further strengthening the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms.” According to a Vietnamese scholar, under the AOIP, the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are “not contiguous territorial spaces but a closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role”; furthermore, the Indo-Pacific should be a region of “dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry”; and the countries of the region must be committed to “development and prosperity”. 

Third, is about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. The US would surely condemn Russian actions in Ukraine, justify its efforts to strengthen Ukrainian military capability and the NATO’s commitment to the alliance partners.  ASEAN Member States are divided over the Ukrainian crisis and their “initial reaction to the invasion was perfunctory and lame, calling for diplomatic means and peaceful resolution without condemning the invasion itself.”  The divisions among the ASEAN became visible during the United Nations General Assembly’s nonbinding resolution to condemn Russia for aggression against Ukraine; two ASEAN Member States chose abstentions, while the other eight voted in favor including Cambodia.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính has confirmed his attendance at the Special Summit and the spokesperson for the foreign ministry noted that “Vietnam is willing and ready to work with the President Joe Biden administration to strengthen and deepen our bilateral relations in an effective and sustainable manner, for peace, stability cooperation, and development in the region and beyond, and for the interests of the two countries and the two peoples.”

It merits mention that in the recent past Vietnam has received several high level visits from the US. Vietnam is an important trading partner of the US and is also hoping to be given market economy status. At the strategic level, US is hoping that Vietnam endorses its Indo-Pacific strategy. In these contexts, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US on 11 May 2022 in the run up to the Summit will be significant. 

It is fair to argue that the Summit is a much needed occasion for both the ASEAN and the US, given the tumultuous situation in Asia and in Europe. Also, it should not come as a surprise that Myanmar will not participate in the Summit.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Source:  asean.org

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Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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