US determined to hold summit, deepen engagement with Asean

US President Joe Biden wants to host a US-Asean summit in the spring, said Dr Kurt Campbell (above). PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The key to effective engagement between the United States and Asean is to treat the relationship as multifaceted and more than just diplomacy and security, said Dr Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the National Security Council in Washington.

“In fact, that is the key that we seek when the leaders come to Washington,” he said, referring to a US-Asean summit that President Joe Biden wants to host in Washington some time in the spring – that is, quite soon, but with no dates given.

Dr Campbell was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013 under then President Barack Obama, and has been seen as the architect of that administration’s “pivot to Asia”. 

He was speaking at a Centre for Strategic and International Studies US-Indo-Pacific Conference on Tuesday (April 5).

“We now hold a monthly engagement with Asean ambassadors – something that in the past was occasional engagement, but (is) now deep high-level engagement with key players in the US government,” Dr Campbell said. 

New arrangements like the Quad are important, he said, referring to the informal strategic security grouping comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. 

“But foundationally from our perspective, what is critical is a strong... committed approach to Asean, and that’s what we’re seeking,” he said. 

“The President has indicated he very much wants to host the Asean leaders here in Washington in the spring,” he added. “Sometimes getting everyone’s calendar together can be challenging, but that is what we are determined to do.” 

Dr Campbell said the US government wants to broaden and deepen the scope of engagement with Asean.

“We tend to focus more on diplomacy or security, but we see so many avenues of potential engagement, whether it be on climate change or investments,” he said.

“It is essential for the US to put together an optimistic, engaged, focused effort that sends a message that we’re committed to the region and that we want to work on common approaches, common standards, to create mutual prosperity, and to do it in a way that’s politically viable, not only for the countries involved, but for us (as well).”

It would not be an easy path, he acknowledged. But “we do believe that Asean is foundational... that it has to be the centre of our overall engagement in Asia”, he said.

Asked about the impact on Asia from the war in Ukraine, Dr Campbell said it was “perhaps unspoken, but... every country in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, wants to ensure that Ukraine is a cautionary tale – that no one contemplates again, or in another theatre, some sort of operation that would be so destabilising and so destructive”.

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