Is Biden serious about engaging with South-East Asia?

The President talked a good game at the recent US-Asean summit, but his words and actions aren't matching up

US President Joe Biden and leaders from the Association of South-East Asian Nations arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington last Thursday. AP Photo
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When US President Joe Biden held a summit with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) last week, he didn’t hold back on the hyperbole. Mr Biden called the partnership between the US and the 10-member group “critical”, and said: “We’re launching a new era – a new era – in US-Asean relations."

“A great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written in the Asean countries,” he continued, “and our relationship with you is the future, in the coming years and decades.”

Taken together, the Asean countries have a combined population of just short of 700 million, and the group is expected to be the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2030, after the US, China and the EU. Asean has long insisted on what it calls its own “centrality” – referring to its key role in the regional security architecture, as a convener of the East Asia Summit, and inspirer of other originally Asean-plus formats such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum – and it is certainly central to any “Indo-Pacific” policy that any country comes up with.

Let’s posit that Mr Biden’s words were appropriate: to top them off, both sides agreed to raise their relationship from a “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November. Mr Biden also announced his nominee to be the next US ambassador to Asean: Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff of the National Security Council. A fitting end to the first time that Asean leaders had been invited to the White House for a summit? Perhaps.

What would make a huge difference would be the US returning to the TPP

Scratch beneath the symbolism, though, and it was all far less impressive. If confirmed by the US Senate, Mr Abraham will fill a post that has laid vacant for five years. If, as a White House spokesman said in February, “no region will be more vital to the United States in the future… American security and prosperity fundamentally depend on that of the Indo-Pacific”, why has it taken more than a year for Mr Biden to nominate an envoy to the Indo-Pacific’s core grouping?

What has gone down very badly indeed was Mr Biden’s pledge to spend – wait for it – $150 million in Asean on infrastructure, security, clean energy and anti-pandemic efforts. It reminds me of the moment in the first Austin Powers movie when Dr Evil suggests holding the world to ransom for “1 million dollars”, unaware after having been cryogenically frozen for 30 years since the 1960s that it was not such a large sum of money any more.

Now $150m is not nothing, and it is true that Washington has directed many billions in South-East Asia’s direction over the past couple of decades. But the new figure is too small not to fall flat and has attracted much derision among political and security analysts on all sides of the Pacific – especially when compared to the $1.5 billion that China has promised to spend over the next three years to fight the pandemic and help speed up economic recovery.

As Australia’s Lowy Institute put it in a commentary: “It’s not clear whether the weak outcomes are the result of a lack of timely attention to the summit from senior policymakers, or a misjudgement about what is needed to deliver impact.” Either way, the impact has most certainly been lacking, and the Biden White House’s big idea – an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – has not helped either, not just because it hasn’t been properly announced yet, but also because what is known is that it will not include lower tariffs or better access to US markets.

My former colleague at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Thomas Daniel, expressed a common sentiment when he wrote recently that “despite constant narratives from Washington about maintaining an ‘enduring commitment’ to South-East Asia, policymakers there still fail to understand or fully appreciate the region's concerns and geostrategic realities".

Tommy Koh, Singapore’s influential ambassador-at-large, spelt it out even more clearly to an American audience last month. “You tend to approach the region with a single focus, which is security,” he said. “But Asians live by trade.”

What would make a huge difference would be the US returning to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade agreement that was seen as central to former US president Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, but which had to be renegotiated and renamed (as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP) after Mr Obama's successor, Donald Trump, took the US out of it in virtually his first action in office.

Mr Biden was Mr Obama’s vice president when the agreement was being hammered out. But his administration is too fearful of being attacked in the US Congress to push to rejoin an agreement which, his opponents argue, could undermine American industry and jobs. With that off the table, and countries forging ahead with other agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – Asean plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – the danger is that “this leaves the US largely on the sidelines", as Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre in Singapore, told a US congressional commission in April.

That’s not a good outcome for the US, and it’s not good for a region that welcomes increased trade with everyone and balance in all areas. If American activity in the region concentrates too exclusively on what looks to everyone else like efforts to contain China, to the detriment of trade, Mr Obama’s pivot will have become a pitiful husk indeed, and questions will be asked if this “new era” in US-Asean relations is truly one to be welcomed.

Published: May 18, 2022, 2:00 PM