China bristles at Biden's ASEAN summit, wary of power struggle with U.S.

President Biden‘s White House summit with Southeast Asian leaders begins Thursday, but the gathering has already sparked an aggressive reaction from China, which is warning nations participating in the summit to reject American attempts to exert influence over the region that Chinese leaders say could stoke confrontation with Beijing.

Administration officials say Mr. Biden will toe a cautious rhetorical line on issues pertaining to China during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering, which is being held in Washington at a moment when the longstanding Asian diplomatic group finds itself increasingly caught up in the rivalry for influence between Washington and Beijing. Mr. Biden, who has put democracy promotion at the center of his foreign policy, will also be hosting a number of ASEAN leaders with less-than-stellar records on human rights and civil liberties.

He does not want to send Southeast Asia or Asia into a new Cold War,” White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said Wednesday, as top officials from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, began arriving in Washington.

Mr. Campbell‘s comment, made during a virtual event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, appeared to be in response to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s public comments earlier this week that Asian countries should “guard against” efforts by outside powers to “bring a Cold War mentality into this region and incite confrontations between camps.”

Mr. Wang, according to the South China Morning Post, made the remarks during a video call with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, whose country currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, of which neither China nor the U.S. are official members. 

While Mr. Wang did not explicitly single out Mr. Biden or the U.S. in his remarks, the Chinese foreign minister emphasized that Cambodia and other ASEAN members should take possession of the “Asian moment” presented by this week’s summit in Washington, as well as a range of other major diplomatic gatherings slated to occur in the region this summer.

The guarded rhetoric heading into summit underscores how high the stakes are, Analysts say the summit demonstrates how vital Mr. Biden perceives the U.S.-ASEAN relationship to be within his wider Indo-Pacific strategy, given that he carved out time to host the ASEAN leaders even as U.S. foreign policy of now is being consumed by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Mr. Biden is slated to follow the summit with a trip to Asia later in May, with plans to visit South Korea and Japan. President Trump, whose Asia policy focused heavily on bilateral relations with Beijing, passed on attending the three final ASEAN annual summits of his term; a U.S.-ASEAN leaders’ summit in Las Vegas in 2020 was called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While regional trade relations and security issues — most notably China‘s increasingly aggressive military muscle-flexing in Southeast Asian waters — are on the agenda for this week’s summit, the Ukraine crisis also is looming large over the gathering. However, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden will seek ASEAN‘s help in formally broadening the coalition of nations now standing against and imposing sanctions on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine. 

Analysts say the Ukraine developments present the president with a chance to drive a wedge between ASEAN and China, which has vast trade dealings with every one of the group’s members, but has drawn strong international criticism lately for appearing to support Russia’s actions. The stakes are high for Beijing as well: ASEAN as a bloc represents China‘s largest trade partner, accounting for 14.6% of China‘s total foreign trade in the first four months of this year, more than either the U.S. or the European Union.

China has put itself in a very awkward and unhelpful spot vis-a-vis ASEAN and the rest of the world regarding its waffling responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after also signing a ‘no limits’ friendship deal with Russia in March,” said Satu Limaye, who heads the Washington office of the East-West Center and the Asia Matters for America initiative.

Mr. Limaye pointed in an interview to complex regional dynamics tied to the China-Russia relationship, noting that nearly all of the ASEAN countries have already expressed discontent with Russia’s invasion, despite potential geopolitical risks associated with doing so. 

“Even Cambodia has come out and criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” he said. “The only country in Southeast Asia that has been straddling neutrality on the Russian invasion has been Vietnam and that’s because, like India, Vietnam depends on Russian armaments to defend itself against the threat posed by China.”

Myanmar military-run government has stood out as the lone ASEAN nation expressing outright support for Russia’s invasion. Myanmar is notably in a diplomatic clash with ASEAN at the moment, as other member nations have excluded participation of the country’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, who led a coup against and jailed most of Myanmar’s civilian government last year.

High-stakes summit

Most regional experts agree the stakes of this week’s summit in Washington, along with a series of other upcoming ASEAN events, cannot be overstated, with one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions trying to decide into which camp it fits best.

“This is a crucial opportunity for the United States to impress Southeast Asian leaders with the benefits of working with Washington. The meeting underscores ASEAN centrality, America’s highest-level commitment, and a constructive counterweight to China‘s rules,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute.

Mr. Cronin said the Biden administration will be pushing behind the scenes for ASEAN to deliver a collective statement in opposition to China‘s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has built bases on man-made islands in recent years and Beijing has claimed sovereignty over disputed island chains.

“The last time Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, Southeast Asian nations failed to issue a communique reprimanding China for using coercion to alter the South China Sea unilaterally; this time, Washington wants to leave nothing to chance,” he said. “In the run-up to important ASEAN meetings this summer and fall, close U.S. diplomatic engagement with member states is the surest way of averting a repeat of what happened a decade ago. In July 2012, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a communique for the first time in 45 years, because Cambodia felt compelled to protect China from regional criticism.”

Reports at the time claimed Beijing had exerted pressure to influence Cambodia, which has no claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea and relies heavily on China for trade and investment.

Mr. Cronin, meanwhile, said Mr. Biden has a chance over the coming days to more broadly pursue a goal of showing ASEAN leaders that “he hears and understands” what they have to say and that “his administration will remain open to them whenever they need to talk.”

“The point,” he said, “is to emphasize that the United States is not looking for a transactional relationship as part of some U.S.-China rivalry; rather, Washington is looking for serious long-term partners in Southeast Asia.”

The White House has projected a similar message. Mr. Campbell said Wednesday that while the Biden administration remains deeply focused on the daily developments in Ukraine, he and other top advisors of the president “all recognize that the larger strategic challenges that are going to play out in the Indo-Pacific region.”

“There has been a sense that in previous administrations we had set off with a determined  pace to focus on East Asia or the Indo-Pacific and then [found] ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps [drew] us away a little bit,” said Mr. Campbell, who was widely credited pushing the “pivot to Asia” policy mantra during an earlier White House stint a top Obama administration aide.

“I think there is a deep sense that that can’t happen again,” said Mr. Campbell, who added that Mr. Biden “will be very direct” in his discussions with ASEAN leaders on the issue of U.S.-China competition.

He will talk about our strategy, he‘ll talk about our desire to compete, but compete peacefully and effectively,” Mr. Campbell said, adding that any successful strategy “must be fundamentally based in the needs and the desires of the people of Southeast Asia.”

“We are not naive,” he said. “We understand the nature of competition through Southeast Asia. I think our goal, not just the United States working alone, but increasingly working with partners Japan, Australia, New Zealand [and] countries in Europe, is to demonstrate that … we’re trying to engage in following transparent practices, advance global practices of good governance, engage appropriately with financial institutions on a range of issues, debt relief … [and] health and human services.”

The White House last year announced Mr. Biden‘s “intent to provide up to $102 million in new initiatives to expand the U.S.-ASEAN Strategic Partnership,” but how that translates into real diplomatic and security progress among ASEAN countries remains to be seen. 

“The larger strategic competition is with China and we need to be mindful that China‘s equities and favor in region are going down on the political-security front, so the United States should continue to make sure that we’re rallying ASEAN countries and fully engaging them so that we are able to have continued influence amongst them,” the East-West Center’s Mr. Limaye. “President Biden is doing that. The very fact he‘s hosting this summit at a moment when there’s a land war in the middle of Europe says as much. This is not trivial stuff.”

Mr. Limaye added, however, that the U.S. is currently “failing to compete effectively with China on the economic side of relations with ASEAN countries.”

China is out-trading us with these countries,” he said, adding that the Biden administration could do more to “provide Southeast Asian countries as a whole with the confidence that the U.S. will remain not only as a political-security partner, which there is no doubt about, but also as a vital economic partner.”


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