US policy may help reinforce ASEAN centrality

The Biden Administration’s attitude to China could be a balm for ASEAN. And with growing interest in ASEAN, it’s time for India as a privileged Dialogue Partner since 1995 to add more substance — ranging from infrastructure, capacity building, trilateral cooperation and public health to new resilient value chains. The absence from the RCEP should not be allowed to diminish the partnership.

US policy may help reinforce ASEAN centrality

Staying the course: ASEAN has felt the heat of strategic competition as China asserted itself in the South China Sea to the exclusion of sovereignty of member states. Reuters

Gurjit Singh

Former Ambassador to ASEAN

The global focus is on the Biden administration’s reaction to different aspects of international politics. The China discourse dominates current thinking so much that almost every country, including India, is keen to grasp the nuances of the Biden policy towards China. This includes the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The association is accustomed to its centrality in the region through the ASEAN Dialogue Partnerships with 10 countries, including India, the US and China; the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and now the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It evolved as an Indo- Pacific policy outlook in 2019, so as not to be left out of strategic churning. It successfully stayed the course for the RCEP and some members bravely joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, (CPTPP).

ASEAN felt the heat of strategic competition as China asserted itself aggressively in the South China Sea (SCS) over which it lays traditional claims to the exclusion of the sovereignty of ASEAN states. ASEAN was concerned with the Sino-US rivalry in the region, particularly as Quad countries like India, Japan and Australia also joined the strategic countenance.

Biden’s election brings a sense of relief to ASEAN, which was anxious regarding the then US President Trump’s open confrontation with China, often nudging ASEAN countries to take sides, which they are loath to do. With the RCEP and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments in infrastructure in ASEAN, it was perceived to be tilting towards China. President Trump had not made it easier, having skipped every East Asia Summit since 2017. That hurt ASEAN centrality. ASEAN now believes that with Biden, a more rational order will prevail where normal diplomacy, rather than tweets, would determine the policy. Till the next East Asia Summit in November 2021, ASEAN has adequate time to adjust to the Biden administration, understand it better and engage it.

The cautious policy of trying to balance between the US and China was unhinged by China’s vaccine diplomacy which included joint production with some states, expanding the reach of the BRI including into the Philippines and a post-pandemic expansion of trade making China ASEAN’s largest trading partner.

Several interlocutors in the last months of 2020 noted that ASEAN’s future policies would be determined by the US elections. It remains to be seen whether ASEAN policies adopt any change or merely become more comfortable with a new Biden administration. Current statements by Biden nominees during confirmation hearings indicate that they will continue to counter China, stay focused on the Indo-Pacific, engage Japan and South Korea as alliance partners and stay the course with the Quad. These have been sources of discomfort for ASEAN. The style and demeanour that the Biden administration exhibit towards China could be the balm that ASEAN may relax with.

Brunei has taken over as the ASEAN chairman from Vietnam. It convened its first virtual meeting of foreign ministers on January 28 this year. They look forward to working to strengthening the ASEAN-US strategic partnership for regional peace, security, stability and prosperity. They hope that ASEAN-US cooperation will sustain multilateralism, international cooperation, contribute to global economic recovery and mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Trump largely ignored ASEAN, with Mike Pompeo in September challenging ASEAN to act firmly against China, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines in January 2021, while he had visited Malaysia and Thailand in October 2020. This has not softened the ASEAN position on the South China Sea and in the statement by the foreign ministers on January 28, 2021, they reiterated the consensus in the Vietnamese Chair’s statement in November 2020.

The next steps require a conclusion of the decade-long process of the ASEAN-China code of conduct on the SCS. China has agreed to negotiate with ASEAN as one entity but has put forth difficult conditions including non-applicability of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) , exclusion of non-ASEAN countries from access to resources and to keep the South China Sea gains unchallenged. Some ASEAN countries like Indonesia and Vietnam have approached the UN Secretary General with declarations of their UNCLOS-compliant positions on the South China Sea. Similar support has come from the UK, France and Germany.

This is an interesting time for ASEAN. While they were waiting for the Sino-US rivalry to play out, France, Germany and the Netherlands in the past two years announced new Indo-Pacific policies. The EU is also expected to announce one. These are not robust challenges to China. ASEAN saw them as supportive of its vision. These recognise ASEAN centrality and expanded relations with them.

ASEAN has 10 dialogue partners, including the United States, China and India. Since 1997, there has been a moratorium on the expansion of such dialogue partnerships, but there is growing interest among the countries to engage with ASEAN. ASEAN has accepted more sectoral partners without breaching the moratorium. Norway, Switzerland and Turkey have been thus accepted in the same category as Pakistan. Chile and Germany are joined by Italy and France in a new category of development partners. With the growing interest of the UK in the Indo-Pacific and in the region, it is making post-Brexit efforts to join the TPP. This interests ASEAN. Earlier, the UK had a dialogue partnership with ASEAN through the EU but now intends to push its case for a separate partnership with ASEAN along with its application for the Asia-Pacific free trade agreement and the TPP. It has already presented a plan for ASEAN to use global value chains as part of ASEAN’s post-pandemic recovery framework.

With growing interest in ASEAN, it is time for India as a privileged dialogue partner since 1995 to add more substance — ranging from infrastructure, capacity building, trilateral cooperation and public health to new resilient value chains. The absence from the RCEP should not be allowed to diminish the partnership, much as others with a shorter history are trying to build.

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