The Latest on Southeast Asia: April 14, 2022

Since postponing the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, originally slated for late March, the Biden administration has been working to demonstrate continued commitment to the region. At the recent US-Indo-Pacific Conference hosted by CSIS and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, Pamela Phan, deputy assistant secretary for trade in Asia at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said the administration plans to reschedule the summit in the next couple of months. In the meantime, Southeast Asia has been vocal in what it wants most from the United States: greater economic and trade engagement.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) has been highly anticipated since the United States announced it last October. IPEF seeks to fill the strategic gap left by the United States’ refusal since withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to meaningfully engage in economic rulemaking in the region. But details about IPEF are scarce (other than that it will not be a free trade agreement). The administration is still talking to partners in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific to address concerns about the framework’s functionality, inclusivity, and sustainability. To that end,  U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai last week traveled to Singapore for discussions on economic cooperation through IPEF.
While the administration strives to reschedule the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, officials are working to reinforce the narrative that Southeast Asia is central to U.S. priorities. Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council, spoke at the CSIS-USABC Indo-Pacific Conference on April 5 and noted that senior administration officials have for the first time instituted monthly meetings with the ASEAN ambassadors in Washington. Last week, State Department counsellor Derek Chollet traveled to Vietnam and the Philippines, where he discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore also visited the White House in lieu of attending the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and issued a joint statement with President Joe Biden emphasizing the importance of the U.S.-Singapore security and economic relationship and of upholding a rules based order in the region.

High-level engagements are set to continue. The U.S.-ASEAN Summit is widely expected to be rescheduled following the holy month of Ramadan. The U.S. government is also expected to formally announce the start of IPEF negotiations in the next couple of months. In the meantime, the United States and Malaysia plan to sign a memorandum of understanding to fortify supply chain resilience when Finance Minister Azmin Ali visits Washington in May. In June, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade, Marisa Lago, will lead a clean energy trade mission to Indonesia, Vietnam, and potentially the Philippines to seek opportunities for U.S. businesses in the region. And the U.S. Department of Defense is expected to send high-level representation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in mid-June. These engagements, against the backdrop of the global focus on Ukraine and the postponement of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, are important to show that the region remains a strategic priority.