US President Joe Biden on Tuesday (26/10) announced a $102 million initiative to strengthen US relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A total of $40 million (Rp565 billion) of which was budgeted to help deal with the pandemic and mitigate other pandemics in the future.
Biden announced the commitment while attending a virtual summit hosted by the 10-member bloc. Biden’s presence marked the first time a US president has participated in an ASEAN summit again, following President Donald Trump’s last participation in 2017.
Biden said ASEAN’s role was important in building the architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.
“We will be there, as Vice President Harris did during his recent visit to Southeast Asia. You can look forward to me personally visiting and contacting you. You know, I’m really looking forward to this collaboration. It’s not just the shared interests we share. but also because of our shared values and vision, where every country can compete and succeed in an equal arena, and that all countries, no matter how big or strong, obey the law,” he promised.
The engagement comes as Biden wants to strengthen the US presence in the Pacific region, in the face of China’s growing economic and national security adversary.
The US-ASEAN Business Council trade group welcomes America’s re-engagement. Marc Mealy said, “We are talking about a region that by 2030 will be one of the largest regional economies in the world. We are talking about the Southeast Asia region, which is made up of 10 countries, which annually imports more than $1 billion worth of goods from 21 states in the US.”
While America is seen as the guarantor of security in the face of China’s military ambitions, Washington lags far behind Beijing in terms of economic ties.
ASEAN is China’s largest trading partner. Both are also involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Signed in 2020, the partnership is the largest free trade agreement in the world, without the US.
The US is also not included in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the free trade agreement formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In 2016, the TPP was promoted by President Barack Obama, but was abandoned by President Trump in 2017.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a researcher at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “On several issues, both trade and climate, the US played an important role in the preparatory stage, then sometimes abandoned it. And countries like Japan and ASEAN were able to carry on that legacy afterward. But what I think ultimately lost was the US.”
While the competition between the US and China is intensifying, ASEAN members underline the need for cooperation with the two countries. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Panjaitan even offered Indonesia to be a mediator between the two countries.
“I think Indonesia can bridge maybe if there is a difference between (America) and China, we can play a role, because our relationship with China is very good,” said Luhut.
Meanwhile, Myanmar did not attend this year’s ASEAN summit after the bloc removed the name of the Myanmar junta leader from its annual meeting for ignoring a peace roadmap agreed six months ago following the country’s military coup. [rd/jm]