During the Bush and Obama administration, ASEAN’s role in America’s Asia policy was elevated as the White House began recognizing its wider importance within and beyond the region. Apart from its strategic location compelling larger global players to acknowledge the importance of Southeast Asia, the region’s geopolitical role has had the ability to oscillate views critical to US-China rivalry. Since the Trump Presidency, American perception on China witnessed a sharp shift as anti-China sentiments crystallized. President Trump’s decision to launch a refurbished Asia policy (i.e. the Indo Pacific strategy in 2017) with renewed focus on harnessing a “free and open” rules-based order and strengthening US economic and defense ties with various partners and allies of the region met with bipartisan support. Viewed as one of the many ways to counter China’s influence within the region, President Trump ushered in an era of maximum competition with China that has had a far-reaching impact. Other major countries like Japan, Australia and India who have been long-time supporters of the Indo Pacific rather than the Asia-Pacific, welcomed this shift in the US policy. Being wary of this power struggle, ASEAN has time and again emphasized its centrality for maintaining an “inclusive regional architecture” and collective leadership which has been supported by the US. ASEAN centrality has been an important pillar for maintaining the regional status quo as it provided a means to form consensus within the region.
However, understanding ASEAN’s possible role within the Indo-Pacific has received limited attention from the US. Southeast Asia is a region of significance that holds great economic value (and potential), located in the midst of key sea lanes of communication, and is home to dynamic yet politically diverse countries. Even as US officials have reiterated that ASEAN is “literally at the center of the Indo-Pacific, and plays a central role in the Indo-Pacific vision," American interaction with the region has been inconsistent. Since the Obama administration, there has been a perception gap about Southeast Asia not being a region of focus for the White House. The recent US-ASEAN summit can be seen as President Biden’s attempt at launching a “new era in the relations…guided by the complementary objectives of the Indo Pacific Strategy." By inviting all the member states to Washington DC, avoiding bilateral meetings on the sideline of the summit and engaging with the ASEAN platform to propagate a cohesive US-ASEAN message, there was an attempt at showcasing that the Southeast Asian regional organization reigns at the top of Biden administration’s foreign policy priority list. The American intention to build confidence in the US-ASEAN partnership and countering the growing Chinese influence was evident as new initiatives worth 150 million dollars for infrastructure, maritime security and healthcare were committed by President Biden.
Unlike many parts of the world, Southeast Asia was not quick to embrace the concept of the Indo-Pacific. It was only in 2019 when ASEAN released the ASEAN Outlook of the Indo Pacific that the organization attempted to hesitantly navigate the new geopolitically-loaded construct. The ambivalent position of the group on the Indo-Pacific strategy has been due to China’s sustained influence over the region and a lack of concordance within member states. For America, countering this regional skepticism has been a challenge for multiple reasons. Firstly, the checkered diplomatic engagement with the region has posed questions about the role Southeast Asia plays in America’s larger Asia policy. The bare-minimum personal engagement of top US officials with their counterparts in Southeast Asia amidst the pandemic restrained the reception of the Indo Pacific strategy in Southeast Asia. Secondly, a lack of America-led economic framework(s) has weakened the appeal of the Indo-Pacific as a concept in the region. Even though the Biden administration launched the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), it lacks an active trade and investment plan for the ASEAN countries. During the recent summit, countries like Vietnam and Singapore claimed that the US lacks a clear plan, even though they are keen on possible economic prospects.
Thirdly, on Russia, diverging opinions betweem the US and ASEAN countries addresses their differences in world view and foreign policy approaches. The cautious response to the Ukraine war by ASEAN showcased their unwillingness to weaken their relationship with Russia as countries like Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia depend on latter for defense equipments and weapons. Due to this, Russia was not mentioned in this year’s US-ASEAN joint statement.
And fourthly, as the Quad has become more relevant in America’s strategic ambitions, the relevance of ASEAN centrality has come into question. The rise of this mini-lateral in the US policy discourse has triggered concerns about the role ASEAN could play in the region as the great power struggle intensifies. Within the context of brewing tensions with China over the South China Sea dispute, the Quad’s position in the evolving regional security architecture has been a puzzle for ASEAN countries.
The 2022 summit was successful in displaying that America is ready to start afresh with ASEAN after a stagnation in ties over the past few years. However, the relationship has reached a juncture, where expectations from both sides need to be reevaluated. America’s desire to witness an ASEAN that is less reliant on China can only happen if the White House is able to incorporate ASEAN in its wider economic strategy. At the same time, as the competition between US and China hardens, seeking greater areas of convergence (like climate change) that quells the fear of binary choices for Southeast Asian countries will be ASEAN’s main challenge. The charm of the Indo-Pacific strategy for ASEAN countries lies in its economic and humanitarian aspect, rather than its geopolitical goals. Therefore, America presenting a vision for the Indo-Pacific that would help in achieving mutual benefits beyond the idea of balancing China would help in fostering greater consensus with the Southeast Asian countries.