High stakes for Asean

High stakes for Asean

The declaration after the summit of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United States that they will commit to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” poses a new challenge to the regional bloc.

In a joint “vision statement” after a two-day summit in Washington, the two sides declared they will elevate their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” later this year.

During the summit marking the 45th anniversary of the relationship this year, US President Joe Biden pledged to spend $150 million of investment funds in Asean for infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts.

The move came amid China’s growing military and economic influence in the region and was apparently aimed to counter China. Beijing has conflicting territorial claims with four members of Asean: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Regarding the South China Sea issue, the joint Asean-US statement backed full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

The DOC reaffirms freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful settlement of disputes, and self-restraint in the conduct of activities.

The summit marks the US stepping up its global contest for influence and power, based on the US Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Due to the Russia-Ukraine war and the indirect involvement of the US and Europe, all eyes were on whether Asean would be sucked into the conflict’s orbit given the importance of their bilateral ties.

In the joint statement, they call for the “immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an enabling environment for peaceful resolution” in Ukraine, and they “reaffirm our respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.”

Beijing is keeping a close watch on the summit and its results. For Asean, China is the bloc’s largest trade and investment partner.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is enhancing development prospects and creating new business opportunities in Asean which is one of the world’s most dynamic regions.

China is already the largest participant in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free trade deal, which also includes the 10 Asean economies.

The commitment of China to the Southeast Asia in terms of military and security partnerships is not yet on a par with the US, which has been involved in the region for a long time.

However, China’s participation in a security role in the region is growing as some Asean countries are trying to reduce their dependency on the US in military affairs.

Amid US-China geopolitical competition, Asean must stay neutral and needs a prudent approach to keep balancing its relationship with the two superpowers, without inclining to one side or the other.

The biggest challenge is sustaining an approach that serves both US and China interests and meets regional needs.

Asean needs to make sure Indo-China frameworks or strategies such as those supported by America align with its own guidelines and do not undermine its balancing effort.

Asean needs to be careful in its handling of ties with the US and China and must not to be lured into the superpowers’ grand strategic schemes in Southeast Asia.