US eager to show commitment to Asean with summit: Experts

US President Joe Biden (centre) speaking during last October’s virtual Asean-US Summit hosted by Brunei. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The central message of this week's special summit between the United States and Asean will be America's enduring commitment to South-east Asia, said regional watchers ahead of the long-awaited high-level meeting.

But while the summit offers an opportunity to underscore that commitment and deepen American engagement in the region, it may also highlight some uncomfortable differences between the two sides.

The summit officially commemorates 45 years of US-Asean ties and will take place in Washington on Thursday (May 12) and Friday, more than a year into the Biden administration. It was originally scheduled for late March but was postponed due to scheduling issues.

"The significance of the upcoming US-Asean Special Summit is that it is being held. The meeting is the message," said retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

He noted that the summit is being held while war is still raging in Ukraine - an event that some have predicted would distract the US from South-east Asia, given how America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had previously turned its gaze from the region.

"Holding the US-Asean summit at this time underscores what ought to be obvious - that the US is in fact capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time and is not distracted," Mr Bilahari said on Tuesday during a webinar by the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based international policy think-tank.

Mr Brian Harding, a senior expert on South-east Asia at the federal US Institute of Peace, wrote in an online commentary on Monday: "This special summit seeks to help make up for lost time and clearly demonstrates the United States' interest in and commitment to deepening ties with Asean and its constituent members."

He added: "China's influence and power projection in South-east Asia will figure prominently into the summit, but the two-day meeting also offers the opportunity to deepen economic relations with Asean."

While Washington is focused on its competition with China, the Asean regional bloc will want to avoid damaging ties with its biggest trading partner, and will strive to achieve a balance between both superpowers.

China has been strengthening its economic integration with the region's economies, prompting concerns in Washington that it is losing ground to Beijing there.

At the same time, South-east Asian countries have been keen to deepen trade ties with the US, which withdrew in 2017 from the Trans-Pacific Partnership mega trade deal that later became the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

America's answer is its soon-to-be unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which has been touted as its economic strategy for the region. But US officials have signalled it is unlikely to include market access, and will focus instead on tackling areas such as the digital economy and supply chain resilience.

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) senior fellow for South-east Asia Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in an online commentary for CFR: "Such broad flexibility… will mean that the framework is not going to change much in the region, and is not going to show that the United States can take regional trade leadership."

The US and Asean will also have to face several thorny issues, among the most prominent being the military coup in Myanmar in February last year.

Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing will not attend the meeting.

"The Biden administration will try to persuade Asean to take tougher steps against Myanmar, but it is likely to get nowhere with Asean," wrote Mr Kurlantzick.

"The organisation as a whole has taken no significant steps to pressure the junta to adhere to the (Five-Point) Consensus or make any substantial moves away from the current level of intense repression," he added.

While Asean and the junta arrived at a Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar in April last year, little progress has been made on most of its provisions.

Likewise, while the Biden administration is focused on galvanising international opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, much of the bloc has been publicly lukewarm on the matter, a stance that is likely to continue.

Both sides are slated to release "an ambitious and forward-looking US-Asean joint vision statement", said Ms Kate Rebholz, the charge d'affaires at the US mission to Asean, at Tuesday's webinar.

She added that they would also announce new partnerships on public health, climate and economic growth, among other areas.

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