COUNCIL on FOREIGN RELATIONS
November 15, 2022
President Biden's attendance marks an important development in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, but ASEAN continues to prove ineffective in addressing the region's most pressing issues.
U.S. President Joe Biden poses with other leaders during the 2022 ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 12, 2022. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Last week, President Biden attended the ASEAN summit in Cambodia, which is currently chair of the regional organization, and also held a U.S.-ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. The U.S.-ASEAN summit did serve some important purposes. Just showing up in Asia, as nearly every pundit has noted, is important, demonstrating face time for Southeast Asian leaders that many former U.S. presidents of both parties have failed to do.
While the president reportedly seemed tired during his visit to the ASEAN summit, as he was amid a grueling travel schedule, he pushed forward some minor initiatives with ASEAN. These included the launch of a comprehensive strategic partnership between ASEAN and the United States (which was unveiled before the summit) and some other joint efforts to bolster electric vehicle usage in the region, support female entrepreneurs, and other plans.
But, as expected, Biden did not achieve any sort of consensus with ASEAN leaders about pushing back against China’s growing maritime assertiveness—Cambodia, China’s closest partner in the region, defanged any real public discussion of the topic. There are certainly countries in Southeast Asia that are seeking greater strategic ties with the United States, as fear of China’s assertiveness, coercion, and authoritarianism at home is rising: The Philippines is rapidly rebuilding its strategic relationship with the United States after the backsliding of the Duterte years. Indonesia also has moved slightly more toward the United States, and Vietnam and Singapore already were close U.S. partners.
But ASEAN as a whole will never confront China, since there are already too many countries within the organization that are shifting toward Beijing, and the organization simply will not alienate its most important trading partner. As Phelim Kine of Politico has noted, the prior U.S-ASEAN Special Summit, held in Washington in May, produced little in the way of concrete deliverables, and many ASEAN states see the Biden administration’s regional economic plan, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, as a bunch of talk with few concrete actions—especially if the United States does not include expanding market access as part of IPEF.
Biden also made little public progress on getting ASEAN to take a tougher line toward the brutal Myanmar junta, which has overseen an ongoing civil war, economic collapse, vast rights abuses, and a slide into failed state status. ASEAN operates by consensus and, though some leaders like Indonesian president Joko Widodo want to bar Myanmar from all future ASEAN meetings unless it agrees to ASEAN’s already-stale five-point consensus for ameliorating the conflict, ASEAN could not even agree on that step. Instead, as Bloomberg reported, “ASEAN…came out with a more neutral statement to say it will review Myanmar’s representation at ASEAN meetings ‘if the situation so requires.’”
In its own summit, ASEAN did at least take one positive step forward, admitting Timor-Leste, which, against all odds, has become probably the most robust democracy in the region.
But ASEAN’s Myanmar policy is just disastrous, and the summit did nothing to push it forward. The five-point Myanmar consensus is now useless, more than a year into civil war, and with the junta clearly willing to hold on, stonewall the world, and try to paint over its abuses with what will surely be a flawed “election” next year. Even if implemented, it would do nothing at this point to facilitate real political dialogue or mitigate the humanitarian collapse in Myanmar. Yet ASEAN refuses to move beyond it, showing that the organization as a whole just does not really care what happens in Myanmar.
ASEAN also continues to go nowhere real in creating a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea with Beijing, and the tensions over these two elements, as well as other fissures, are driving the organization apart and may well lead individual ASEAN states to pursue more aggressive bilateral policies toward Myanmar—a sign of the organization’s faltering abilities.
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