The United States and 10 nations from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are eyeing a special summit in March to boost ties at a time when analysts say China continues to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, while driving a wedge between Washington and some of its traditional allies in the region.
Washington is gearing up for the summit set for March 14 in Las Vegas. Bilateral meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and ASEAN leaders are also being planned.
"The most important aspect of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship is really high-level dialogue," said James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for national security. "If American voices aren't there, particularly the senior voices — the president, cabinet secretaries — we just can't be as effective. Both sides can't really benefit from the relationship."
Trump attended the annual gathering with ASEAN leaders and the accompanying East Asia Summit in 2017 but skipped the regular summits in 2018 and 2019, sending U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to attend in 2018, and White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien to attend in 2019. O'Brien relayed Trump's invitation to ASEAN leaders to come to the U.S. for a special summit last November.
"ASEAN is at the heart of our free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, and these meetings will be an opportunity to reaffirm our enduring partnership and commitment to shared principles and to deepen our economic and security cooperation," said a State Department spokesperson.
The Trump administration is under criticism for ignoring the Southeast Asian bloc, allowing some of Washington's traditional allies in the region to grow closer to China.
"China is actively employing a whole-of-government approach to absorb Southeast Asian nations into its sphere of influence by sowing intra-ASEAN divisions, driving wedges between U.S. alliances, and using economic coercion," said Joshua Fitt from the Washington-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Southeast Asian countries are "generally hostile" to the idea of needing to "pick a side," said Fitt, adding the best way forward is a "show, don't tell" approach of not forcing a choice, but rather advancing positive alternatives.
While a single summit is unlikely to fully address substantive policy concerns from nations of the regional bloc, analysts said a get-together like this is a positive step to repair ties.
"The special summit is a necessary effort by the U.S. government to repair hurt feelings in Southeast Asia after President Trump skipped two consecutive East Asia summits," said Anthony Nelson, director of the East Asia and Pacific practice at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business strategy firm.
Nelson said there is "eagerness" from ASEAN leaders and American policymakers to "strengthen ties, as there has been great concern in the region over Washington's drifting interest."
A top U.S. official said Washington is increasing its efforts to advance the U.S.-ASEAN partnership.
"President Trump knows how important the ASEAN [is], he's put a particular focus on it, and we've really doubled down," Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach told VOA in a recent interview.
The summit will likely address areas of shared concern, such as continued freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, cybersecurity, international terrorism and smuggling, and infrastructure development.
There will also be separate discussions on technology, women's empowerment, and the Mekong region development, said Nelson.
A senior administration official told VOA the discussion on cybersecurity is not just about Huawei and 5G but "more on digital trust."
"It all comes down to who do you trust?" said the official.
ASEAN and the U.S. launched the first Cyber Policy Dialogue in Singapore last October, promoting shared approaches to 5G network, cybersecurity, and digital trade.
This is not the first time the U.S. will host a special summit with ASEAN leaders. In mid-February 2016, then-U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the U.S.-ASEAN leaders summit in Sunnylands, California, which was seen as raising Southeast Asia's profile in U.S. Asia policy.