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Biden's presence at ASEAN summit marks US 'comeback' to region

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, attends a virtual summit meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the White House in Washington on Oct. 26, 2021. (Kyodo)

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Kyodo) -- U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to meet leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the sidelines of the group's annual summit that is being held virtually this week is seen by some as the U.S. "comeback" to the region after a long hiatus during the Trump era.

    However, the U.S. attempt to engage ASEAN more actively may not necessarily be welcomed with open arms by all countries in the region as more of them have been forging closer ties with China. Rather, the response to U.S. overtures can be complex due to ground realities such as the wariness of China's rising influence, experts said.

    Biden attended Tuesday's online summit with ASEAN leaders and Wednesday's virtual East Asia Summit, a gathering of ASEAN and its dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea, in addition to the United States.

    His participation in the annual summits marks a departure from the previous four years under then President Donald Trump, who skipped every East Asia Summit meeting held during his tenure, leading to criticism of a perceived lack of interest in Southeast Asia. Trump attended only one U.S.-ASEAN summit, in 2017.

    Addressing ASEAN leaders Tuesday, Biden emphasized the importance of "showing up and reaching out" to deepen long-standing U.S.-ASEAN cooperation.

    He also announced that the United States plans to provide over $100 million to ASEAN for various purposes such as combating COVID-19 and tackling climate change, in the latest sign of U.S. commitment to the region amid China's growing clout.

    The funding plan reflects the Biden administration's "deep commitment to ASEAN's central role in the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific," the White House said in a document outlining a set of new initiatives to expand their partnership.

    "After the neglect of ASEAN-related institutions during the Trump Administration, Biden's involvement highlights the return of the U.S. to multilateral diplomacy," said Barry Desker, a retired Singaporean diplomat who is now a scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

    "President Biden's participation in the ASEAN leaders' meeting is a symbol of the high importance that his administration attaches to Southeast Asia and to ASEAN as an institution in its overall Indo-Pacific strategy," said David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University and expert on Asian affairs.

    "ASEAN is critically important in its own right -- but it is also central in the Biden administration's 'competition' strategy vis-a-vis China," Shambaugh said.

    Retired Singaporean top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, now an academic, said he does "not think the Americans ever left the region," adding that "Trump did not see value in attending ASEAN meetings, but that is a different matter."

    With China's growing influence in the region, some ASEAN countries see the U.S.'s comeback to the region as an opportunity to rebalance power strategies.

    Desker said that "although China has strengthened its ties with a number of countries in the region, especially Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, its relationship with several others has worsened, leading some such as Indonesia and Vietnam to adopt "balance of power strategies aimed at increasing their freedom of manoeuver."

    For example, China's ties with Vietnam and the Philippines have frayed recently because of its continuing encroachments into waters they claim in the South China Sea. At the same, its relationships with India and Japan are at low ebbs due to conflicting territorial claims.

    "One consequence of China's efforts to draw support from the region and to push back against the American presence is that countries in the region are beginning to question the cost of welcoming Chinese political and economic initiatives," Desker said.

    Biden's more active engagement with the region can be expected to accelerate the fierce rivalry between the United States and China. This could be seen in the months leading up to the summits, how both countries were aggressively engaging ASEAN and trying to influence how ASEAN deals with the vexing issue of post-coup Myanmar.

    ASEAN's decision to exclude Myanmar's military leader and allow only a nonpolitical representative can be seen as an attempt to ensure that the U.S. president would be willing to participate at the ASEAN-organized summits.

    The United States put pressure on ASEAN to take stronger actions against Myanmar ahead of the summits for its lack of cooperation with ASEAN's peace efforts.

    Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the ASEAN-U.S. Summit that he looks forward to "further strengthening the ASEAN-U.S. partnership under President Biden's stewardship."

    "Going forward, ASEAN and the United States should expand our partnership to nontraditional domains, including digital infrastructure, cybersecurity, and climate change," Lee said.

    According to the ASEAN Secretariat, the U.S. remains an important trading partner of ASEAN with the total two-way trade in 2020 reaching $308.3 billion, making it the second largest trading partner of ASEAN among dialogue partners.

    ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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