Subtle threat to ASEAN: US indifference to Indonesia and Thailand

BANGKOK – Six months after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the United States has finally begun its final diplomatic overtures to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended virtual meetings of foreign ministers on July 14 and August 4, while last week ASEAN invited representatives from non-member countries to discuss security at the ‘a series of meetings.

Blinken attended the meetings on all dates until Friday, when the ASEAN Regional Forum – another online event – was convened, attended by representatives from Japan, China, India, from Russia and the European Union, etc.

Southeast Asia has become the latest front in the coronavirus pandemic and has been hit hard by the delta variant, pushing important meetings online. But virtual meetings do not have the weight of traditional face-to-face diplomacy, although they do provide a necessary venue for discussions.

Still, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin personally visited Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in late July, and Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit Singapore and Vietnam later this month.

So far, the message the United States has sent is nothing new, predictably indicating its desire to keep China under control over the South China Sea, trumpeting concerns over human rights violations. man in the region and promising new supplies of coronavirus vaccine – all of this comes against a backdrop of competition with China.

ASEAN officials may have breathed a sigh of relief at the US focus on the region, as until then Biden had largely directed his efforts to Japan, South Korea and India, without a word on ASEAN.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana shake hands after a bilateral meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in the Philippines on July 30. © Reuters

The United States had disappointed and even angered some ASEAN countries before that date with their indifference during a “mirage” foreign ministerial meeting at the end of May. Blinken was supposed to register online on a flight to the Middle East, but his participation plan appeared superficial. To make matters worse, a technical glitch forced foreign ministers from 10 countries to wait for Blinken to appear before the meeting was ultimately called off.

Although Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand immediately after the incident, it created suspicion among ASEAN officials.

In some ways, however, the lack of US attention to ASEAN is understandable. The country is focusing on the region primarily as a deterrent from China. This thinking clearly emerged under former President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which created friction with many friendly nations.

In view of this, the Americans felt it was imperative to coordinate first with larger players – including Australia and the EU – in its goal of surrounding China before engaging with the ‘ASEAN, the buffer zone.

However, the United States’ choice of ASEAN countries to target has raised further concerns, as Austin and Harris will visit the same countries, including excluding regional powers Indonesia and Thailand, countries which would have been given priority in the past.

This coldness did not escape the main media in both countries.

When news broke that Austin would be heading to Southeast Asia late last month, regional observers waited to see if Indonesia was on his itinerary.

“So a loud moan could be heard in the halls of power in Jakarta when it became apparent that Austin would only visit countries that mattered ‘strategically’: Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines,” Mr. Taufiqurrahman, editor-in-chief of The Jakarta. To post. “A week later, we could certainly expect a bigger price tag when it was announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would be visiting Southeast Asia in August. But then again [she] will only make stopovers in Singapore and Vietnam, which have direct strategic value to the United States. “

US President Joe Biden, right, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attend a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington on July 20. © Reuters

Referring to Biden’s recent speech on climate change, in which the US president alleged that Jakarta could be underwater for the next 10 years, Mr Taufiqurrahman said: “You may not have to help us, but at least don’t insult us. “

“Obviously, the US Department of Defense had to choose the most important US allies and friends in the region for Mr. Austin’s route due to time constraints,” wrote Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior researcher at the ‘Chulalongkorn University, in a commentary for the Bangkok Post. “But it showed Washington’s real intention that the Land of Smiles was off the radar. The verdict has already been incorporated into the Interim National Security Strategic Guidelines issued in March because it simply didn’t mention Thailand.”

The three countries visited by US officials are undoubtedly of strategic importance. Singapore, for example, has a key port for the US 7th Fleet, playing an important role in providing logistical support to US military planes and ships. Vietnam and the Philippines face China directly over their respective territorial issues in the South China Sea.

On the other hand, Indonesia and Thailand have become noticeably pro-Chinese as well as Cambodia in recent years. In light of this, the Under Secretary of State’s decision to bring these three countries together could be seen as a warning.

What message is the Biden team trying to project?

The term Southeast Asia began to be used after Allied forces established the Southeast Asia Command in Sri Lanka during World War II. The term was coined by people outside the region. In contrast, ASEAN, which was established in 1967 as a framework for regional cooperation, was functionally appointed by the people of the region. It was born as a counter-communist alliance and has since shaped the geopolitics of the region.

Thailand, which led the formation of ASEAN by drafting the Bangkok Declaration, and Indonesia, which is home to the bloc’s headquarters and fostered its growth, are the countries that have led ASEAN since its inception with only five founding members.

In fact, the two countries have led many of the important decisions made by ASEAN. For example, the ASEAN Free Trade Area was proposed by former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun in the early 1990s and has become the ASEAN Economic Community.

Then Indonesian President Suharto played a key role when Myanmar, then under the previous military rule, joined ASEAN in 1997. Indonesia again played a key role in the process. the bloc’s response to the February military takeover in Myanmar.

Former US President Donald Trump, fifth from left, joins the ASEAN-US 40th Anniversary Memorial Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017 © Reuters

Do Americans prefer to forge strategic relationships with individual countries in Southeast Asia rather than with ASEAN per se? In early July, in preparation for the diplomatic measures of the Biden administration, Kurt Campbell, Biden’s policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific said: “For an effective strategy in Asia, for an effective Indo-Pacific approach, you need to do more in Southeast Asia. “

To step up its game against China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, in which Beijing seeks to expand its economic and security sphere, the Biden administration has made the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, made up of the Japan, the United States, Australia and India, the pillar of its strategy in Asia.

There is nothing unusual for the United States to think that having talks with individual countries such as Vietnam and Singapore will be more effective than dealing with ASEAN, whose members have views. different in China, which makes it difficult to coordinate the association’s actions.

Kavi Chongkittavorn of Chulalongkorn University warns: “An ASEAN member deciding to partner with the Quad in any format will immediately weaken the regional architecture led by ASEAN. Such a scenario could upset ASEAN’s survival strategy of uniting small countries to gain outside influence.

The situation is reminiscent of the multilateral trade negotiations of recent years. In 2010, the United States led the initiative for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, with Vietnam and Malaysia announcing their desire to join the trade bloc.

In response, ASEAN, fearing it would lose its goal of creating a larger free trade area, changed course and began promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). After eight years of difficult negotiations, the association finally accepted the agreement last November.

Competition between the United States and China makes it difficult for ASEAN members to find common ground, but that does not necessarily mean that the bloc cannot force compromise and cooperation from both sides. The main sticking point seems to be the unanimous agreement among members needed to advance ASEAN’s interests.

The long-awaited return of US attention to Asia ironically threatens ASEAN’s raison d’être. Will he be able to maintain his leading role in regional affairs, as he did when he approved the RCEP? If ASEAN’s leadership continues to weaken, the bloc – which recently failed to unite in its response to the Myanmar military takeover – could erode further.

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