The Latest on Southeast Asia: April 28, 2022

President Joe Biden will host most of his counterparts from Southeast Asia for a U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Washington, D.C. on May 12-13. This assembly will likely tackle a range of pressing political and economic challenges, including post-pandemic recovery, the wars in Ukraine and Myanmar, and their economic repercussions. The administration will seek to underscore the importance of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship as part of its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. To that end, it will likely announce new initiatives to build on the more than $100 million in efforts that Biden announced during the October 2021 virtual U.S.-ASEAN Summit. The United States will also likely to seek to elevate its relationship with ASEAN to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”—the same symbolic level attained by Australia and China last year.  

Eight ASEAN leaders, representing every country except Myanmar and the Philippines, are expected to attend the summit. With the Philippine presidential election taking place on May 9, President Rodrigo Duterte has turned down the invitation to travel to Washington, saying that he would not be able to represent his successor’s strategy toward the United States and ASEAN. Following ASEAN’s own precedent, the United States has refused to invite any member of Myanmar’s junta, but may be open to participation by a non-political representative. Since the February 2021 coup, more than 1,770 people have been killed, 13,000 arrested, and 55,000 displaced by fighting in Myanmar. Summit members are likely to review current policy toward Myanmar, which has failed to make any meaningful progress in implementing the ASEAN “Five Point Consensus” despite the controversial diplomatic outreach by current ASEAN chair Cambodia.

The ongoing invasion of Ukraine directly affects Southeast Asia’s economic recovery and is likely to take up a part of the agenda during the summit. Regional reactions to the Russian invasion have varied considerably. As leader of the Group of 20 this year, Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo faces calls from the United States and other members to disinvite Russia from the fall summit. Instead, Jakarta has reportedly invited Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky to attend as a special guest. Cambodia as ASEAN chair and Thailand as APEC chair this year are likely to face similar pressures. The Biden administration will undoubtedly raise its concerns and seek further support from ASEAN countries in denouncing Russia and limiting further engagement.

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy seeks to leverage bilateral alliances and partnerships, multilateral cooperation through ASEAN, and new mechanisms like the Quad to greatest advantage in the region. The summit and a slew of bilateral meetings on its sidelines will reinforce this multi-track approach to regional diplomacy, as will President Biden’s trip to South Korea and to a Quad summit in Japan a week later.  This busy diplomatic calendar shows, in part, that the crisis in Ukraine has not distracted the administration from its long-term focus on the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater of strategic competition. To that end, the coming weeks are also expected to feature a speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the contours of the administration’s China strategy and the public launch of talks on the much-anticipated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

A recent poll from Gallup shows that the Biden administration’s efforts in the region are being positively received. U.S. leadership is rated more highly across the region than at any time since 2013, with especially notable increases among publics in the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The success of U.S.-led economic efforts in the month ahead will go a long way in determining whether that support for American leadership continues to advance or recedes.