US Looks to Boost Regional Sway at US-ASEAN Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden is hoping to use the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh next week to continue making his case for strengthened economic ties and diplomatic neutrality in a region that has become a geopolitical battleground between America and China.

Biden’s bid to cement strategic alliances comes several months after the White House hosted a summit of ASEAN leaders highlighting America’s commitment to the region. However, analysts speaking after the Washington gathering were pessimistic that the high-profile diplomacy would curb Beijing’s influence in ASEAN, a sentiment that hasn’t changed in the run-up to the November 12 meeting of the Southeast Asian bloc of 10 nations.

“This is because China is an important economic partner for the region … and China has also established many functional areas of cooperation with ASEAN, many of which are already institutionalized,” said Joanne Lin Weiling, a co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Center at the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

She noted that Biden’s strategic alliances in the region are largely intended to counter China. This makes them an uncomfortable fit for ASEAN members such as Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, which have “very strong ties and relations with China,” she said, adding “ASEAN does not exclude China in its approach to the Indo-Pacific.”

Still, the Biden administration is hoping to find receptive partners in areas such as maritime cooperation, sustainable development, transportation and infrastructure connectivity, and economic relations — and will likely avoid issues that raise obvious conflicts with Beijing.

“The reality in the region is most of the ASEAN member states are trying desperately to not be forced into making a choice between China and the U.S.,” Phil Robertson, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told VOA Khmer.

“So, there is an ongoing game of strategic ambiguity in the region, where ASEAN member states will take what they can from each side while trying to make as few concrete commitments as they can which would cause them problems with one side or the other,” he said.

The White House announced that Biden would attend the 10th U.S.-ASEAN summit in person on November 12. Participants are expected to establish the U.S.-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to boost multilateral relations.

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit is part of a series of diplomatic meetings around the ASEAN summit, which Cambodia is hosting before it passes the baton of annual leadership for the regional bloc to next year’s chair, Indonesia.

The summit comes during a time of soaring geopolitical tensions over the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s ambitions to take control of Taiwan. The most pressing crisis within ASEAN continues to be Myanmar, where a military junta that seized power in February 2021 has refused regional diplomatic interventions or global calls to release political prisoners.

ASEAN has tried to play a peacemaking role since shortly after the junta ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy activist and daughter of the country’s founder, Aung San.

“The Myanmar crisis will be front and center in the discussions at the ASEAN summit because both the ASEAN member states as well as the various dialogue partners are extremely concerned by the disastrous situation in that country, the massive rights violations and crimes against humanity happening every day there, and the growing civil war,” Robertson said.

Last month, ASEAN foreign ministers held a special meeting on Myanmar in Jakarta. They said their efforts to quell the fighting haven’t achieved significant progress and called for “concrete, practical and time-bound actions” to strengthen the implementation of a five-point consensus the group reached in April last year on ways to seek peace.

Robertson added that he hoped the bloc would agree on “clear penalties” if Myanmar fails to release political prisoners, cease attacks on its people or move toward democracy, such as a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions against the junta and its business interests.

But when it comes to making commitments regarding democracy and human rights in their own countries, Robertson said, Washington is unlikely to secure any firm agreements.

Seven ASEAN member states are also part of the U.S Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was launched in May this year to further economic collaboration in areas such as digital economy, supply chain resilience, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure. As part of the U.S. push in the region, Biden is also going to join the East Asia Summit on November 13 before leaving Cambodia to attend a G-20 meeting in Indonesia on that day.

Chheang Vannarith, executive president of the Asian Vision Institute in Cambodia, noted the ASEAN Summit comes just days after Xi Jinping secured power for another term during the Communist Party Congress in Beijing. And Taiwan is just one area of growing stress between China and the U.S., along with the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“The Chinese role and influence in the world are growing at the same time the power competition between United States and China is still rising in the region and the world. So, that is very complicated,” he said.

Cambodia faces the difficult task this week of keeping all 10 ASEAN members and numerous dialogue partners happy, or at least avoiding sticking points that will highlight disagreements.

As Chheang Vannatith put it, “Being the ASEAN chair this year is not easy.”

Colin Meyn contributed to this report.

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