President Joe Biden today became the first U.S. president to (at least virtually) attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in four years. That in itself was a minor win for U.S. relations with ASEAN, which has felt ignored by U.S. administrations at times going back to the Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush eras at the very least. (Some Southeast Asian leaders were probably angry that Biden had not personally contacted them in the months after his inauguration.)
Biden told the summit that leaders should expect he and other top U.S. leaders to be more present in Southeast Asia going forward, and announced that the United States would provide $100 million to strengthen ties with ASEAN and bolster the United States’ Strategic Partnership with ASEAN. “I want you all to hear directly from me the importance the United States places on its relationship with ASEAN,” Biden said, according to reporting. “You can expect to see me showing up and reaching out to you.” He also emphasized that the United States would refocus on climate change in the region, one of the regions most affected by global warming.
Besides a sense of recognition, which does matter in ASEAN, what did Biden bring to the table, and what more could be done?
ASEAN, an organization that usually is reluctant to criticize any member, excluded Myanmar’s junta leader from the summit, a significant step in some ways for ASEAN — a step taken because of foreign pressure and the junta thumbing its nose at ASEAN. Yet ASEAN is unlikely to take too many more tough actions against the junta. The ASEAN summit chairman’s statement, as Aaron Connelly has noted, does mention that ASEAN is supposedly devoted to democracy and the rule of law, but many ASEAN members seem ready to welcome Myanmar back to participation in the organization, since quite a few ASEAN states are themselves autocracies. Brunei’s leader (an autocratic monarch himself), at the summit, noted that “Myanmar should be given space to return to normalcy in line with ASEAN's principle of non-interference,” according to Reuters.
The Biden administration did send its highest-ever official, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, to meet with representatives of Myanmar’s parallel government. But the United States should move toward recognizing the National Unity Government (NUG) as the government of Myanmar, as the junta continues to mismanage Myanmar into chaos, and as the junta prepares what seems to be a massive offensive in the coming months, which will surely lead to enormous bloodshed. Such a move by the United States would put other democracies in a position to possibly recognize the NUG, some of which already have taken strides in this direction.
Wisely, Biden chose not to emphasize the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship at the ASEAN summit, while emphasizing that ASEAN — even in the era of the Quad — remains vital to U.S. security. ASEAN members are, among countries in the world, some of the most knowledgeable about China’s actions and more recent aggressive diplomacy, and very few want to be publicly seen at a summit taking a harsh line toward China. However, not a few, including Singapore and Vietnam, do have a hardening view toward China; yet the ASEAN summit is not the venue for hashing out such views in public. At the same time, because the United States is essentially absent from trade integration in East Asia, including Southeast Asia, it essentially has ceded this area to China — and even at a time when China is alienating some Southeast Asian states with its assertive diplomacy.
While most ASEAN states handled COVID-19 very well in 2020, many have struggled in 2021, with high levels of domestic transmission and (with exceptions) relatively low rates of full vaccination. Many of the poorer Southeast Asian states also are angry at global inequalities in vaccine access. Biden promised to help Southeast Asian states address the pandemic, and the new spending — at least $40 million of it — is supposed to be in part to address COVID-19. It remains a relatively small sum, given the enormous nature of the pandemic and the huge needs in many poorer Southeast Asian states.
I’ll have more on the ASEAN summit later in the week.