Ahead of this week’s U.S.-ASEAN summit, USIP’s Brian Harding says the Biden administration is “kicking off a really intense period of diplomatic engagement with Asia” with plans to draw a contrast with China and seek cooperation on issues such as climate change and supply chains.
U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.
Julie Mason: I'm Julie Mason. Brian Harding is senior expert for Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Here to discuss the upcoming ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meeting. President Biden will be hosting at the White House coming up in just a few days now. Brian, good morning.
Brian Harding: Morning, Julie.
Julie Mason: A bit of a fraught summit coming up for the president.
Brian Harding: Yeah, in some ways it's an opportunity, though. It's not nothing that the president is hosting, it should be 10, but it's eight, leaders from Southeast Asia - small countries, (Cambodia and Laos) and big countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam). And it comes as we really kick off a really intense period of diplomatic engagement with Asia. President Biden will travel to Japan and South Korea later this month. In Tokyo, he will have a summit with the Quad leaders, meaning the leaders from India, Japan, Australia, the United States all together. So really entering into a period of intense engagement with Asia, even though, you have a crisis in Eastern Europe. And I think it says a lot about the administration's priorities.
Julie Mason: What does it say about the administration's priorities? That they're actually going to be paying attention to Asia now?
Brian Harding: Yes, and, you know, the administration, in every way, it's tried to make clear that, what it's calling the Indo Pacific, what we used to call the Asia Pacific plus the Indian Ocean region, is the priority for U.S. foreign policy. And I mean, the fact is that this is the most dynamic region of the world. It's where the history of the 21st century is going to be written. And a lot of this has to do with the rise of China and just an intense power dynamic that's really shifting. And the United States, these are where the opportunities are. There are areas that you know, it's inevitable that the United States is going to get distracted. But the Biden administration right here is saying, you know, the President's time is the most valuable thing in the world at the White House. And he's going to spend time talking about the digital economy and climate and health security with a group of important countries all the way over in Southeast Asia this week.
Julie Mason: So, Myanmar won't be joining the rest of the gang this year.
Brian Harding: That's right. So engaging ASEAN, this collective, this consensus-based group of 10 countries, has not been easy over the last 15 months at all since the coup in Myanmar in February of 2021. Nine of the 10 countries will be represented. Eight by leaders, one, the Philippine foreign minister is here, they have an election today. But it's right that Myanmar, Burma, is not at the table and nothing good seems to be happening in the country. Fifteen months later, where the stalemate, the military is not able to control even most of the country, incredibly repressive. It'll be on the agenda. ASEAN leaders are just as frustrated with the situation as President Biden is, but there's some divisions within ASEAN about how much they want to pressure and isolate the military government in Myanmar.
Julie Mason: Some other like potential little minefields there. Like you mentioned the Philippine foreign minister. How do you like, how does the U.S. sit down with the Duterte regime?
Brian Harding: Well, we're about to have the Marcos regime. Remember Ferdinand Marcos who was dictator for many years, well his son is about to become president. So, you know, U.S.-Philippine relations, at a political level, haven't been easy for the last six years under Duterte. They're not about to be easy under Marcos, but that doesn't mean that that's the entirety of the U.S.-Philippines relationship. We have intimate history. An enormous Philippine-American community with ties back and forth. There's incredible goodwill for the United States and armed forces of the Philippines which has really kept things on the rails a bit during the Duterte administration. But this is, you know, the Philippines is family and it's not easy, but we are bound to each other with a mutual defense treaty and in our history and ties between our two peoples.
Julie Mason: The leader of Cambodia, whose name escapes me, also is a bit of a trouble spot.
Brian Harding: Yeah, his name is Hun Sen, and he has been in power for almost 40 years and has really presided over a shift to authoritarianism, the promise of Cambodia's peace accords that ended civil war 30 years ago have really, really faded. And the U.S.-Cambodia relationship is not a strong one at all. But, you know, core to engagement with ASEAN is that the chairmanship of ASEAN rotates on an annual basis, in alphabetical order, and this year, Cambodia is the chair, so Cambodia, it will be hosting the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum. President Biden will travel to Cambodia later this year. So, in U.S.-ASEAN relations, you know, the dynamics change quite a bit about who's sitting at the chair that year, and next year, it'll be Indonesia, and you will have a very different dynamic. But, you know, Cambodia might be the one country in Southeast Asia, that's somewhat happy with this situation in Myanmar because it's, you know, it's no longer the worst actor.
Julie Mason: So Brian, how hard do you think Biden is going to push the ASEAN members this year on China?
Brian Harding: I think President Biden is really just trying to set up a contrast, you know. While he's hosting the 10, well nine, leaders at the White House this week and traveling to Tokyo and Seoul, President Xi is locked down and literally locked down in China presiding over the sprawling COVID-19 lock downs. You know, whether that shifts the sense in Southeast Asia that China's rise is inevitable, and the United States is somehow in some places, we think it's declining in influence. You know, that's an open question. You know, Biden's really going to be focused on potential apolitical areas for cooperation - supply chain resilience, digital economy, climate change, health security - and talking basically about what the United States can do in a productive way. And trying to set that contrast with China with his actions and the types of cooperation that we can forge, rather than, you know, really, the last thing that Southeast Asian countries want is to be asked to choose between the United States and China. And I think his administration is certainly smart enough to realize that.
Julie Mason: And Ukraine will also be on the menu, I imagine.
Brian Harding: It will be. You know, I think the most important thing is that Biden's saying that despite Ukraine, he's taking the time this week, and also in his trip later this month, to be focused on Asia. I think there's two other substantive ways that it'll be on the agenda. One is just demonstrating the fragility of the international system right now and why Southeast Asia needs to build its own resilience, why the United States engaged in the region is important for the system in Asia. And the second is to highlight, frankly, China's tacit approval for the invasion of Ukraine.
Julie Mason: Really, really interesting summit coming up this week, May 12 and 13 at the White House. Brian Harding, senior expert for Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Thank you for joining me.
Brian Harding: My pleasure.
Julie Mason: Great to talk.