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Biden touts ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific in summit with ASEAN rulers

President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2022. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
May 15, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden declared to Southeast Asian leaders on Friday that “our relationship with you is the future,” as he wound up a summit with the ASEAN bloc of nations aimed at shoring up trans-Pacific ties and countering China’s heavy influence in the region.

Biden’s remarks to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations followed statements from Vice President Kamala Harris offering ASEAN countries maritime security assistance to address “threats to international rules and norms” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken holding talks with regional heavyweight Indonesia and budding partner Vietnam.

“A great deal of history of our world over the next 50 years is going to be written in the ASEAN countries and our relationship with you is the future in the coming years and decades,” Biden said on the final day of the two-day U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.

“ASEAN centrality is the very heart of my administration’s strategy in pursuing the future we all want to see. The Indo-Pacific is an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable, and prosperous, and resilient and secure. It’s what we’re all seeking,” the U.S. president said.

Experts describe “ASEAN centrality” as the concept that the 10-nation bloc serves as the driver and architect of institution-building and of relations with and among outside actors in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We’re committed to a future where the rules and norms that have made possible so much growth and prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific are upheld and strengthened, including respect for the rule of law and for human rights,” Biden added.

In a gesture seen as significant in a region that often feels neglected by Washington even as governments seek a counterbalance to China’s extensive presence, he nominated a close advisor, Yohannes Abraham, as U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, filling a post in Indonesia that has gone without a confirmed envoy for more than five years.

“He’ll be a trusted representative to continue deepening this critical partnership among all of us,” Biden said of Abraham, who serves as chief of staff and executive secretary at the National Security Council and was a senior aide in the Barack Obama administration.

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The region has a population of over 662 million people and a combined GDP of $3.2 trillion.

The summit ended with a “joint vision statement pledging to deepen and strengthen the 45-year-old U.S.-ASEAN relationship and called for peace in Ukraine and Myanmar without condemning Russia or the military regime in Naypyidaw.

“We commit to establish an ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial at the 10th ASEAN-U.S. Summit in November 2022,” the closing statement said.

On the South China Sea, it said the nations “emphasize the importance of practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculation.” It did not mention China, which has territorial disputes with ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The communique called for the “immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and for the release of all political detainees, including foreigners,” while on Ukraine it called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an enabling environment for peaceful resolution.

Earlier Friday, hosting the ASEAN leaders for a working lunch, Harris stressed the security concerns many of the countries share over aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea, where several of the 10 ASEAN states have territorial disputes with Beijing.

“Our administration recognizes the vital strategic importance of your region, a role that will only grow with time. And we recognize ASEAN’s centrality in the region’s architecture,” she told the gathering at the State Department in Washington.

“As an Indo-Pacific nation, the United States will be present and continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come,” Harris said, adding that with a shared vision for the region, “together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms.”

“We stand with our allies and partners in defending the maritime rules-based order which includes freedom of navigation and international law,” she said, without mentioning China.

To underscore U.S. commitment, Harris said the U.S. will provide $60 million in new regional maritime security assistance led by the U.S. Coast Guard, and will deploy a cutter as a training platform and will send technical experts to help build capacity in the region.

That offer followed Biden’s commitment at the summit’s opening dinner Thursday to spend U.S. $150 million on COVID-19 prevention, security, and infrastructure in Southeast Asia as part of a package his administration hopes will offset China’s much larger involvement in the region along its southern border.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship will also be deployed to the region to patrol waters ASEAN nations say are illegally fished by Chinese vessels, Biden said.

Not all ASEAN countries are comfortable taking on China, the mostly unnamed subject of U.S. comments this week on rule of law and regional stability.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told the Thai diaspora on Thursday his government would not side with any superpower in the volatile atmosphere. 

“As I am coming here to the special ASEAN-U.S. Summit, many keep an eye on me, which side the prime minister would choose and how. We have to do our best to keep our country intact and people have resources to survive. Our principle is that we don’t make conflict with anyone,” he said in live remarks on his government’s Facebook page.

The second U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held in the United States, following an inaugural gathering in California in 2016, “puts an emphasis on the great importance that we attach, the United States attaches to ASEAN, our relationship, ASEAN centrality,” Blinken told Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

“We are working together across the board to advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  We’re working to strengthen economic ties among countries in the region,” he said at the State Department.

‘Dreadful humanitarian crisis’ in Ukraine

Retno welcomed “intensified communication and cooperation between our two countries,” and said “we should use this strategic partnership also to contribute to the peace, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.”

Departing with a general reticence about discussing the war in Ukraine among of ASEAN states–which include Russia-friendly Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam–the Indonesia minister said: “Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible.”

Retno’s remarks echoed those made to U.S. lawmakers Thursday by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who noted the Ukraine war’s impact on the global economy, including food and energy price surges.

“The Ukrainian war has led to a dreadful humanitarian crisis that affects the global economy,” he said, according to remarks released by his cabinet.

Blinken told Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh that Washington and Hanoi are “now the strongest of partners, with a shared vision for security in the region we share and for the strongest possible economic ties.”

The crisis following the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, which was a top focus of Thursday’s meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, was at the fore of Blinken’s meeting with Cambodia Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who also serves as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar.

“We’re working very closely together as partners to try to advance a shared vision for the region, including regional security,” said Blinken. Cambodia is this year’s rotating ASEAN chair.

“And of course, we welcome the leadership role that you’re playing at ASEAN on a number of issues, including hopefully working to restore the democratic path of Myanmar,” Blinken added.

Absent but high on the agenda

Myanmar was one of only two ASEAN countries whose rulers were not at the summit.

The Philippines is being represented by its foreign minister as it wraps up a presidential election this week, while Myanmar’s junta chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was barred from the summit amid a brutal crackdown on opponents of his military regime that rights groups say has claimed the lives of at least 1,835 civilians.

While absent in Washington, the country the U.S. still officially calls Burma was much on the agenda of its fellow ASEAN members Thursday.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah called out junta officials in a series of tweets for failing to honor their commitment to end violence in the country, while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held a meeting with Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of the shadow National Unity Government in Myanmar.

“The deputy secretary highlighted that the United States would continue to work closely with ASEAN and other partners in pressing for a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma,” according to a statement by State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

“They also condemned the escalating regime violence that has led to a humanitarian crisis and called for unhindered humanitarian access to assist all those in need in Burma.”

In Naypyidaw, RFA’s Myanmar Service asked military junta spokesman Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun for comments but he did not respond.

But the head of a think tank made up of former military officers who often reflects the regime’s hardline views called the U.S. meeting with the parallel administration “unethical.”

“To put it bluntly, it’s an unethical act by a superpower showing disrespect to another country,” said Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies.

The State Administrative Council, as the junta formally calls itself, “is currently holding the three branches of power in Myanmar,” he said.

“As it will move on to deliver its promises in time, no matter what the West may say or push or do, it will follow its own road map,” said Thein Tun Oo.