The Biden administration is set to rollout an intense period of diplomatic engagement with the nations of the Indo-Pacific, beginning this week with the U.S.-ASEAN summit and the president’s upcoming trip to South Korea and Japan later this month. While the administration has been focused on the war in Ukraine, the message is clear: The Indo-Pacific is vital to U.S. strategic interests. “There has been a sense that in previous administrations [Washington] had set off to focus on the Indo-Pacific but found ourselves with other pressing challenges that draw us away,” U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said. “I think there is a deep sense that can’t happen again.”

President Joe Biden attends a virtual U.S.-ASEAN Summit meeting, from the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden attends a virtual U.S.-ASEAN Summit meeting, from the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)

“We’ve tried to underscore that ASEAN is central to our conception of a broader engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” Campbell said at a USIP event previewing the summit. The 10-nation Southeast Asia bloc accounts for the seventh-largest economy in the world, is one of the epicenters of the challenges posed by climate change, and economically and geographically linked with China.

Along with the ASEAN summit and Biden’s East Asia trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to deliver a speech in the coming months laying out more concretely the contours of the administration’s China policy, Campbell said. The administration is also developing an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). 

Is Biden’s ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ Just Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ 2.0?

The administration released in February its “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which emphasized the global strategic importance it places on the region, noting, “The Future of each of our nations — and indeed the world — depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead.”

The Obama administration also sought to center its foreign policy on Asia — commonly referred to as the “Pivot to Asia” — turning from Washington’s longtime focus on the Middle East and Europe. “Is this just the pivot 2.0?” Evan Medeiros, who moderated the discussion and serves as a special advisor to USIP’s China program, asked. Medeiros was President Obama’s top advisor on the Asia-Pacific region.

There was a sense with the Asia Pivot that “the United States was somehow ‘pivoting’ away from Europe … that we were moving away from our most consequential [transatlantic] partnerships,” said Campbell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia during the Obama administration. “And I think what is different this time is that there's such a huge element of our Indo-Pacific strategy that is actually about deep engagements with partners in Europe,” Campbell said. “So, last time I think it was perceived more about pivoting away [from Europe] and I think there’s now more a sense of working together in the Indo-Pacific.”

The China Question

Some observers have suggested that the White House’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to counter China’s influence and power projection in the region. Similar suggestions have been made about new groupings like the Quad (made up of the United States, Australia, India and Japan) and AUKUS (the United States, United Kingdom and Australia). “We recognize quite clearly that any initiative that is simply designed for competition [with China] is likely to have difficulty gaining altitude in Asia,” Campbell said.  

White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell (right) explains to USIP Special Advisor Evan Medeiros (left) why ASEAN is central to U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell (right) explains to USIP Special Advisor Evan Medeiros (left) why ASEAN is central to U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN become China’s largest trading partner in 2021 and relations between Beijing and many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia are close. “So do we have a shot in this competition?” Medeiros asked, wondering if the administration saw it as a “zero-sum” competition.

“I wouldn’t put it in game theory terms … I think what most countries in Southeast Asia want is diversified engagement; stable relations with their big neighbor to the north, but also practical, enduring ties with the United States,” Campbell said. 

Competition between the United States and a rising China is inevitable but that does not mean conflict between the two powers is inexorable. “We believe that it is possible to compete responsibly and in a healthy way, but at the same time … our team recognizes that it will be important to try to establish some guardrails that will keep the relationship from veering into dangerous arenas of competition,” Campbell said at a USIP event last November.

Southeast Asia: An Economic Hub and ‘Epicenter’ of Climate Change

ASEAN is a global economic powerhouse that does billions of dollars in trade annually and many of the world’s other major economies are in the Indo-Pacific region. The administration has yet to release the full IPEF plan, but has signaled that IPEF aims to deepen economic engagement in the region; set standards for the digital economy, technology and workers’ right; and to address climate change and energy issues.

“I would say there is substantial interest in participating in IPEF across Southeast Asia,” Campbell said. “Part of what we’re seeking is to create modalities and opportunities for more investment and engagement from the United States into ASEAN.”

Stepped-up U.S. economic and commercial engagement with Southeast Asia will necessarily include dialogue and initiatives on climate and energy issues. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2022 report noted that Southeast Asia is among the most imperiled regions in the world due to climate change. 

“There’s real urgency to address [climate] matters in the next two days,” Campbell said. “You’re going to see a number of initiatives around energy … trying to wean these countries off coal, also taking steps to preserve forests.” 

ASEAN’s Response to the Russia-Ukraine War

The United States and the rest of the West have largely rallied in support of Ukraine and against Russia. But the picture in Southeast Asia is more complicated. Some of these countries have longstanding close relationships with Moscow, Campbell noted. 

Vietnam, for example, is a close American partner, but also heavily reliant on Russian military equipment. Despite Western pressure, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all abstained from an April 7 U.N. General Assembly vote that suspended Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Indonesia holds the chair of the G-20 this year and has refused to bar Russia from the 2022 intergovernmental summit. Singapore, a close American partner, has stood out from the rest of ASEAN, however, by condemning Russia’s invasion and coordinating sanctions with the United States and Europe.

“Southeast Asians are seeking to tread carefully,” particularly given China’s perspective and posture toward the war in Ukraine, Campbell said. “This is uncertain political territory.” 

Myanmar’s Coup and ASEAN Diplomacy

Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup put a spotlight on ASEAN, with many accusing the bloc of being ineffectual due to its historic policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member nations. Despite nine ASEAN leaders and Myanmar’s junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, agreeing last year to a plan that would help stabilize the country — known as the “Five Point Consensus” — the Myanmar military has flagrantly ignored the terms of the agreement and ASEAN has done little to hold the Myanmar military accountable.

In defiance of the consensus, the junta’s leader said in March that all opposition forces would be annihilated. At least 1,500 have been killed in protests against the coup, with nearly 12,000 unlawfully detained, according to the U.N. The fallout from the coup and the subsequent violence has laid a heavy toll on the region, which has been forced to take in refugees and had to deal with transnational crime that has arisen amid the chaos of the coup. The coup has also “reversed 10 years of progress and reform” in Myanmar, USIP-led Myanmar Study Group reported

“We believe that ASEAN has a critical role to play and we want to encourage greater diplomacy,” Campbell said. “We hope and expect ASEAN to take real initiatives in terms of how to engage both [sides of the conflict] about the way forward in a tragic and incredibly difficult set of circumstances.” There will not be a representative from Myanmar’s junta at the ASEAN summit. Campbell indicated that the Biden administration was engaging with the National Unity Government, which represents the deposed elected government.

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