U.S.-ASEAN summit: Cooperation or containment?
Mustafa Hyder Sayed
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., the U.S., May 13, 2022. /VCG.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., the U.S., May 13, 2022. /VCG.

Editor's note: Mustafa Hyder Sayed is the executive director of the Pakistan-China Institute. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On May 12 and 13, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the first-ever U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special summit at the White House, where ASEAN leaders and President Biden convened to discuss a range of issues.

Washington pledged an investment of over $150 million for issues that included maritime cooperation, infrastructure development and other initiatives. Seemingly, the outcomes of this conclave are nothing extraordinary and resemble the standard read-outs that such multilateral meetings produce.

However, taking a closer look at the Joint Vision Statement released by the White House after the special summit reveals an elephant in the room: the administration's strategy of bloc politics. To enlist sovereign countries to further Washington's narrow political interests to contain China is consistent, such as AUKUS and QUAD, but has not yielded much success.

Here's are a few instances where the U.S. didn't succeed in convincing its close allies, let alone ASEAN, which is known for its ASEAN "centrality," meaning keeping ASEAN's interests paramount:

1)      The Belt and Road Initiative, which consists of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, has more than 180 signatories, that include all ASEAN countries, and also Greece and Italy, which are prominent members from Europe.

2)      Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed on November 15, 2020 by ASEAN member countries and 5 regional partners, China being one of them, is the largest free trade agreement to be signed to date. Interestingly, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, who are QUAD and AUKUS members with the exception of South Korea, departed from following U.S. policy and joined the RCEP, which was considered by many as a victory for China.

3)      The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was launched in 2016, despite the U.S. dubbing it as a China-led initiative to counter existing Bretton-Woods institutions, the U.K, Australia, India, South Korea and New Zealand all joined the AIIB and many of them joined as founding members.

Since all the ASEAN members are enthusiastic signatories to the BRI, and the successful launch of the two aforementioned large initiatives, BRI and RCEP, with the concurrence of ASEAN countries, has led the U.S. to respond in the manner that we see, one of them being the U.S.-ASEAN special summit.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) participates in the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special summit at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., the U.S., May 13, 2022. /VCG

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) participates in the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special summit at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., the U.S., May 13, 2022. /VCG

The joint statement of the U.S-ASEAN special summit notes "…that the AOIP (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific) and the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States share relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture." The joint statement makes clear on the very outset that the aim of the U.S., by hosting the  ASEAN-U.S. Summit, is to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy by leveraging prospective investments and economic cooperation for ASEAN countries.

The very basis of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, referred in the joint statement, is to counter China's influence by economically, politically and militarily expanding cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries and subsequently expanding the U.S. footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy unequivocally states that the "intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC (Peoples Republic of China). The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world's most influential power." The document proceeds to list alleged coercive and aggressive activities of China in the Asia-Pacific.

The special summit's joint statement also refers to "ensuring maritime security and safety, as well as freedom of navigation… as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities," which is a reference to the disputed South China Sea islands. Whereas the disputes are being managed by the countries that exist in that neighborhood, the proactive and institutional role that Washington is carving for itself, by injecting the U.S. Coast Guard presence in this disputed area will not only "fan the fire" and further inflame an already fragile situation.

A November 2020 report by Brookings, a leading Washington-based think-tank, titled "RCEP: a new trade agreement that will shape global economics and politics," stated that "if RCEP spurs mutually beneficial growth, its members, including China, will gain influence across the world," essentially underscoring the success of the RCEP as a strategic victory of China at the cost of U.S. interests. The article also warned Washington policy-makers that, "U.S. policies in Asia need to adjust to the changing realities of East Asia, recognizing the increased role of China, maturing ASEAN integration, and America’s diminished relative economic influence."

The U.S.' increased confrontation of China in its own neighborhood like the South China Sea and interference within China's sovereign territory is equivalent to China setting up maritime security posts in Mexico and establishing bilateral relations with the island of Hawaii. Let alone how human rights and international laws were violated when Hawaii was forcibly annexed by the United States in 1898 and its indigenous population marginalized and monarchy overthrown.

It is crucial that the U.S. compete with China in all spheres but should not blur the red lines that define the parameters within which to compete and maneuver diplomatically.

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