Pivot to ASEAN: why Biden should pay attention to Southeast Asia

Barely ten days into his term as president, Joe Biden is already facing a wide array of issues demanding his immediate attention, both domestic and abroad. But many of America’s key foreign policy challenges in the next four years will be closely linked to Asia. Although the big issues—China, North Korea—are concentrated up north, it would be detrimental for Biden’s Asia strategy to ignore the south.

Unlike Trump, who paid little attention to ASEAN while in office, Biden should take advantage of this coalition of nations to increase U.S. diplomacy with Southeast Asia, thus strengthening its strategic position in the entire region. Although still the world’s preeminent global power, the U.S. will not be able to successfully deal with every political issue across the many regions of the globe. This is where alliances come in.

Biden has already made it clear that, unlike his predecessor, he will prioritise strengthening America’s ties with its allies. In fact, US allies in Southeast Asia are already welcoming this change in attitude from Washington.

“We look forward to working with the new administration to further strengthen the strategic partnership between ASEAN and the United States (US) for the region’s peace, security, stability and prosperity,” an ASEAN press release stated last week.

Various Southeast Asian states seem particularly keen on strengthening ties with the US amidst China’s “vaccine diplomacy” efforts currently underway in the region. Despite China’s best efforts, various Southeast Asian states remain wary of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat held last Thursday, “concerns were expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” the aforementioned press release stated.

Given America’s overlapping strategic interests concerning the South China Sea, increased diplomatic engagement with ASEAN is not only desirable, but necessary. Biden seems to be in agreement with this point. He has already showed interest in increasing US diplomatic cooperation with the region by creating the post of Indo-Pacific Coordinator and appointing former US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell—one of the architects of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy—to increase engagement with states in the region.

Although Obama’s Pivot to Asia plans left much to be desired, Biden now has the opportunity to revive the strategy and take concrete steps at strengthening alliances in the region and increasing cooperation between the US and ASEAN.

The new US administration seems particularly concerned about China’s economic policies. “The president is committed to stopping China’s economic abuses on many fronts, and the most effective way to do that is through working in concert with our allies and partners to do exactly that,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 21 January.

However, if the US truly wants to stop “China’s economic abuses” it must offer an attractive alternative. Given that ASEAN already has an FTA with China but not with the US, this further puts America at a disadvantage. Not to mention the recent signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between China, ASEAN, and four other states has further weakened America’s economic clout in Asia.

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Although it will be difficult for Biden to significantly improve US economic influence in the region during his current term in office, he can’t afford to continue the trend of America’s declining position in the East.

The Biden administration must show ASEAN leaders that the US is an ally they can depend on, trust, and effectively cooperate with on various issues. It’s not enough to have created the new Indo-Pacific Coordinator position; increased cooperation on military, economic, and non-traditional security challenges—such as the pandemic—must take place as soon as possible.

Despite not being possible for the time being, Biden should make it a priority to visit ASEAN states in person as soon as circumstances allow to show his commitment to the region. The US will continue to lose strategic ground as long as Chinese officials are the only ones showing up to important ASEAN meetings, multilateral summits and special occasions, while the Americans are nowhere to be seen.

The stakes are high in Asia. A pivot to ASEAN, done effectively and with long-term goals in mind, will help the US strengthen ties with key allies, thus recovering some of its lost strategic influence in this all-important region.

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