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While the Joe Biden administration is pouring millions of dollars into assisting Ukraine in its fight against Russia, it is simultaneously working to convince its friends and allies that developments in that part of the world have no bearing on the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and engagement.

As difficult as it sounds, the US is walking a tightrope, showing commitment to engaging the region, manifested in the virtual Quad meeting in March, the Biden-Modi virtual summit on the sidelines of the India-US 2+2 dialogue in April, and the upcoming in-person Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24.

The US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit, which will be held on May 12-13, will further determine the nature of the US commitment to the region and, more importantly, its acceptability in ASEAN. Over the last several months, US officials Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, and Lloyd Austin paid several crucial visits to the ASEAN region to get them into a closer embrace.

The summit is significant on several counts. For one, this in-person summit has the potential to bring greater warmth to the US-ASEAN ties at the top level following former US President Donald Trump’s reluctance to attend the East Asia Summit and ASEAN summits. The summit’s significance also lies in the fact that it is just the second Special Summit since 2016, and the first in-person rendezvous between the US and ASEAN leaders in almost half a decade.

Amidst the Russia-Ukraine war, this is another chance for the US to convince the ASEAN member states of its commitment to ASEAN and that it is keen to continue playing the role of the security guarantor in the region.

While China is a driving force behind the US’s renewed interest in the region, its Indo-Pacific strategy prioritises ASEAN. For ASEAN, the most acceptable view is that superpowers should engage it on its merits rather than any balance of power calculations. The US seems to have realised that merely criticising China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would not suffice; it must also develop viable alternatives to the BRI based on norms integral to the rules-based liberal international order. The Biden administration has also been mindful of the fact that its security-centric Indo-Pacific strategy is perceived as a China containment strategy writ large.

The US effort to bring together institutional mechanisms such as the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), Indo-Pacific Fund, Maritime Security Initiative, as well as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Build Back Better World (B3W) aim to provide a more holistic persona to its Indo-Pacific vision. Such an approach would naturally be more in tune with the majority of ASEAN countries.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework may provide an opportunity for ASEAN to engage the US more closely. Likewise, the Maritime Security Initiative could assist ASEAN member states, particularly the South China Sea littoral countries, to build their maritime capacities. These are highlighted in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy 2022 as mechanisms for enhanced regional collaboration.

The Russian roulette and the US-ASEAN ties

When Biden meets with his ASEAN counterparts this week, the Russia-Ukraine crisis will probably be one of the main subjects of conversation. However, as the battle rages on, ASEAN countries seem more divided than ever before. Six ASEAN countries abstained from voting on Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council on April 7 (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand), two voted against (Laos and Vietnam), and two voted in favour (Myanmar [by mistake] and the Philippines).

Singapore is the only ASEAN country to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia, but its abstention from the United Nations vote on April 7 startled many observers.

The voting pattern indicates a rethink on the role of the West in the conflict and greater alignment among Asian countries on the Russia-Ukraine war. ASEAN countries are not in favour of a heightened China-US rivalry or the current Russia-West enmity. It is also crucial to acknowledge that Russia does not pose as much of a threat to ASEAN members as it does to the West.

While the US seeks to establish a uniform, coordinated policy in the Indo-Pacific aimed at keeping Russia and China out, some regional capitals remain sceptical. By and large, ASEAN prefers to keep all the other major powers involved but not let one or some of them dominate the system. Strategic yet soft institutional balance has been ASEAN’s guiding principle. This is why ASEAN feels more comfortable working with Asian powers such as Japan and India, which offer more inclusive and flexible policy options.

Biden should avoid getting fixated on Russia while dealing with Asian partners and pressuring ASEAN leaders to take a stand, and instead let them decide what is in their best interests. Such an approach would contribute to the perception that US-ASEAN ties are on a level playing field and that everyone’s sovereign equality is respected.

The China Factor

The major motive driving the US’ interests in the Indo-Pacific, which is also gradually drawing the Indo-Pacific countries closer together, is the anxieties posed by China’s assertive postures. The South China Sea dispute has dominated the mainstream security discourse for more than a decade, fueling maritime competition and security dilemmas. This trend is likely to continue, complicating territorial and EEZ (exclusive economic zone) issues.

The US must acknowledge and understand that Asian and Western conceptions of security threats remain at odds. China, with its active territorial claims and conflicts and growing belligerence, poses a threat to the region’s strategic status quo and rules-based order. China, not Russia, will continue to pose a threat to the US predominance in the Indo-Pacific, and it will likely become more difficult to manage in the future.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in April 2021, the US House of Representatives introduced the “Countering Chinese Communist Party Malign Influence bill”, which aims to authorize the US government to spend “US$ 300,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2021 through 2025 for the Countering Chinese Influence Fund to counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.” Greater cooperation with ASEAN countries and more diplomatic footwork in the Indo-Pacific region are in order.

The Road Ahead

While boosting nations’ commitment and further institutionalising the Indo-Pacific regional architecture requires economic, technical, and security cooperation, this may be done by identifying common ground with ASEAN and working in concert with ASEAN’s current frameworks (e.g., the EAS, ARF, and ADMM Plus).

A robust economic foundation is required to keep the Indo-Pacific afloat. The US reputation as a promoter of free trade declined after it withdrew from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The US-proposed IPEF could play a key role in persuading and incorporating ASEAN nations into the framework, hence enhancing its acceptance.

The IPEC, which was announced in October 2021 but is yet to attain critical mass, might benefit from the US-ASEAN summit. On the economic and trade front, the US continued to lag behind China, which has signed a free trade agreement with ASEAN and four of its other dialogue partners under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It would be welcome news for ASEAN and the region if the US tried to catch up on that front.


Rahul Mishra PhD is a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, where he heads the European Studies program. He is also associated with the University’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. His publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century: New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_


Article was first published at Financial Express.

Last Update: 13/05/2022