ASEAN – the central piece of the US strategy in Asia

With the ability to connect all powers, ASEAN is considered an important piece of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, according to experts.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to attend the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM-55). This is the third time the highest-ranking diplomat from Washington has visited the region, raising expectations for a more comprehensive development of US-ASEAN cooperation.

Blinken’s visit is also seen as an opportunity for the US to realize commitments made at the ASEAN-US Special Summit in May, affirming the bloc’s key role in India’s strategy. Ocean – Pacific of the administration of President Joe Biden.

“The Indo-Pacific Strategy not only lists US allies such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines or Thailand, but also mentions India and ASEAN members,” said Pham Quang. Vinh, a former deputy foreign minister and former ambassador of Vietnam to the US, told VnExpress. “ASEAN continues to be recognized by the US as a central piece in the development of regional architecture.”

Vinh explained that ASEAN is currently the only group that can connect all powers in the region and the world, including two competing powers, China and the US. Those powers all recognize the central role of ASEAN.

“ASEAN can provide a framework for all countries to work together, as well as help powers like the US, China, Australia and Japan work together through regional processes,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Indonesia in December 2021.  Photo: Reuters.

The warship USS Montgomery leads a formation of Southeast Asian naval vessels during the joint maritime exercise AUMX in September 2019. Image: US Navy.

According to the former deputy foreign minister, a very important point that has been raised in the US Indo-Pacific strategy is “strengthening collective capacity in the region”, which requires the US to cooperate with all factors, not only with frameworks like the Quad (including the US, Japan, Australia and India) or the Australia-US-UK security agreement (AUKUS).

Therefore, he said, ASEAN should be recognized as an important element in the US vision of a “rules-based order” in the region, both in terms of economy and security.

Derek Grossman, senior analyst for defense consulting firm RAND in the US, points out that the US policy of approaching Southeast Asia is lacking in practical actions to match the diplomatic rhetoric.

Washington has repeatedly affirmed that ASEAN is the “heart of the region’s strategy”, but many important US actions are being taken outside the ASEAN framework.

“We’ve seen more frameworks take shape without ASEAN involvement, even though the Biden administration continues to say it needs the bloc’s central role in the region. The Indian Ocean Economic Framework Initiative – The Pacific Ocean (IPEF) is creating such a feeling,” he acknowledged.

Foreign Minister Blinken’s series of activities within the framework of the expanded ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh is expected to realize the commitments made by the US during the US-ASEAN Special Summit three months ago in Phnom Penh. Washington.

In a joint statement after the meeting, the two sides agreed to elevate their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in November. ASEAN and the US also announced that they would jointly implement eight contents, including responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. strengthen connectivity and economic relations, promote maritime cooperation, strengthen people-to-people exchanges, support sub-regional development, utilize technology and promote innovation, respond to climate change, peacekeeping and confidence building.

During this trip to Southeast Asia, Mr. Blinken wanted to reaffirm the commitment from the Biden administration to the centrality of ASEAN, a statement from the US State Department said.

“US security cooperation in the region has come a long way. Meanwhile, access in other aspects such as economy, education or pandemic is still lagging behind the level of investment in security. The non-military approach to ASEAN needs a broader focus from Washington,” said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

According to him, ASEAN wants the Biden administration to put on the table to negotiate more concrete and proactive economic cooperation measures to create conditions for balancing relations in the region.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (second from left) and ASEAN leaders pose for a photo at the White House with US President Joe Biden on May 11.  Photo: AFP.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (second from left) and ASEAN leaders pose for a photo at the White House with US President Joe Biden on May 11. Image: AFP.

Hiebert noted that although the vision statement on the US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is a remarkable step forward in the relationship of the parties, the “black and white paper” agreement was signed as early as November, when Mr. Biden traveled to the region to attend the APEC, ASEAN and G20 summits.

Opinion polls conducted in the US recently show that Biden is at a disadvantage in terms of voter support. Therefore, expert Hiebert is concerned that adverse developments with Democrats in the midterm congressional elections in November may affect Biden’s political priorities, making his commitment to elevate relations with The US-ASEAN comprehensive strategic cooperation has been delayed.

Meanwhile, Jim Loi, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, has a more optimistic view, saying that ASEAN remains one of the top priorities of the Biden administration.

He said the US has focused on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region for many presidential terms, although each administration has different policy and tactical priorities. Washington now has many diplomatic approaches to show its interest in the region, despite having to focus on the Ukraine crisis and a number of other international issues.

According to Jim Loi, the Indo-Pacific strategy announced by the US in February is one of the first two national security strategy documents of the Biden administration. The document outlines a roadmap to advance the interests of not only the United States but also the entire region, and demonstrates the Indo-Pacific position in the Biden administration’s policy priorities hierarchy.

Hiebert said that although the priority of cooperation with ASEAN has been expressed by the US in strategic documents and diplomatic statements, what is important now is that Washington realizes them.

“During the summit in May in Washington, the US and ASEAN made many commitments to cooperate in a wide range of fields. Now is the time for the US to move towards implementing those commitments with ASEAN, otherwise the achievements have already been achieved. achieved will fade,” he emphasized.

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