The United States is advancing its “strategic partnership” with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as President Joe Biden’s administration aims to begin a new “Indo Pacific Economic Framework” in early 2022.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to embark on a series of in-person meetings with foreign ministers from the Southeast Asian bloc during his upcoming travel to the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hawaii December 9-17.
For the first time, ASEAN members are invited to participate in a G-7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting being held in the British city of Liverpool later this week. The G-7 is the grouping of the world’s wealthiest democracies, known more formally as the Group of Seven.
Blinken is scheduled to meet with some of his counterparts from the southeast Asian bloc during the G-7 gathering before heading to the Asia-Pacific rim next week.
In Jakarta, he will deliver remarks on the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership.
“The Secretary will have an opportunity to discuss the president’s newly announced Indo-Pacific economic framework,” State Department’s Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters in a call briefing. “President Biden is committed to elevating U.S.-ASEAN engagement to unprecedented levels.”
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. Kritenbrink told VOA on Wednesday that Blinken will attend a vaccine clinic hosted by the largest faith-based NGO in Indonesia.
The top U.S. diplomat then heads to Malaysia and Thailand where he will attempt to advance U.S. ties with these countries and address shared challenges, including COVID-19, building resilient supply chains, the climate crisis, and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The State Department said Blinken will “address the worsening crisis in Burma” in each country during the lengthy trip. Burma is also known as Myanmar, where the military seized power in a February coup, overthrowing the civilian government.
U.S. officials had indicated the new “Indo Pacific Economic Framework” would include broad partnerships with nations in the region on critical areas, including the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency and clean energy.
“The Indo-Pacific region is a critical part of our economy. It’s not just that it accounts for over half of the world’s population and 60 percent of global GDP,” Jose Fernandez, the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, said in a recent briefing.
“Seven of the top 15 U.S. export markets are in the Indo-Pacific. Two-way trade between the U.S. and the region was over $1.75 trillion,” he added.
There are, however, concerns that the United States is lagging behind China in deepening economic and strategic ties with ASEAN.
“ASEAN countries want more from Washington on the economic side, but the Biden administration's proposed Indo-Pacific economic framework is likely to fall short of their expectations,” said Susannah Patton, a research fellow in the foreign policy and defense program at the United States Studies Center in Sydney.
“After RCEP enters into force, there will be two mega-trade pacts in Asia: RCEP and CPTPP, and the United States is in neither, said Patton, referencing a trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as well as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“China's application to join CPTPP, a vehicle that was designed to promote U.S. economic ties with Asia, highlights Washington's absence,” Patton told VOA Wednesday. The CPTPP is a free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam that was signed in 2018.
In November 2020, 10 ASEAN member states and five additional countries (Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, representing around 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and population. RCEP will come into force in January.
Others said the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework appears to be not just about traditional trade, as Washington is signaling strategic interests in the region.
“Take semiconductors for example; as significant players in chip packaging and manufacturing, ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Singapore may play an important role in helping the United States build resilient supply chains for semiconductors,” Ngor Luong, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told VOA.
Blinken’s trip comes as the Southeast Asian bloc marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue. In a joint statement, ASEAN and China announced the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” to reaffirm cooperation in areas including political-security, economic, and social-cultural aspects.
The joint statement said ASEAN and China support efforts to preserve Southeast Asia as a region “free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”
“The language supporting the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and opposing proliferation isn’t new—ASEAN has been talking about it for decades--but China’s loud support for SEANWFZ has been a response to AUKUS,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
SEANWFZ refers to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.
AUKUS is a security deal among the United States, Britain and Australia. It is seen as designed to contain China's expansion and is strongly opposed by Beijing.
“Within ASEAN, Singapore and the Philippines have explicitly endorsed AUKUS, Vietnam is quietly supportive, and Indonesia is conflicted including the recent statement of the defense minister which was quite supportive. Only Malaysia has been explicitly critical of AUKUS,” Poling added.
Others noted the mixed signals sent by ASEAN members are happening amid China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea over territorial disputes, and against the backdrop of Beijing's test of a hypersonic weapon system in the atmosphere over the sea.
“China’s actions and words don’t typically align, and the challenge facing ASEAN countries is to maintain their independence from China’s sphere of influence,” Ngor Luong said.