That the United States held its special summit with Asean in Washington last week ahead of the Quad summit in Tokyo next week shows the importance it places on the South-east Asian grouping in its strategic rivalry with China. Indeed, some in China see America's overtures towards Asean as an effort to "lure Asean members into an encirclement to trap China", as an expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences put it to Chinese media. Both the Chinese and Americans increasingly see South-east Asia as a focal point of US-China strategic competition: for China because of geographical proximity, maritime interests and close trade ties with countries in the region; and for the US because it sits at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, a region of vital strategic and economic interest to the superpower.
Asean, for its part, welcomes Washington's renewed regional focus after years of relative neglect under the Trump administration. At a time of growing Chinese assertiveness in its maritime claims in the South China Sea, many Asean members are only too glad that the US is not drawn away from the region by the Russia-Ukraine war. America's strong military presence in the region had afforded the space and stability for countries here to develop and prosper in the past. These countries now largely look to the US to provide a security balance to China's regional objectives.