In contrast to the rising role of the US’ traditional allies like Japan and Australia, the importance of ASEAN countries appears to be declining in Washington’s Indo-Pacific agenda, despite frequent diplomatic interaction between ASEAN and the US.
In the past year, ASEAN countries have been a major focus of the Biden administration’s diplomatic attentions, as high-ranking US officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made numerous visits to Southeast Asian countries.
In these visits, and in the latest US-ASEAN Special Summit held in May in Washington, DC, the first time that leaders of ASEAN member states were invited to the US capital as a group, the US repeatedly reiterated that it recognizes and respects the central role of ASEAN and will uphold the principle of “ASEAN Centrality.”
Referring to the idea that ASEAN can play a leading and driving role in regional agenda setting, the centrality principle is crucial to ASEAN’s very existence and its relevance in the international arena as a regional bloc.
But as the Biden administration shifts its focus to consolidating its alliance system in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, ASEAN is becoming increasingly irrelevant in agenda-setting of regional affairs, especially in the security realm.
Moreover, the US-ASEAN summit offered little substance in economic cooperation. Following a US$102 million financial package announced at the ASEAN-US summit in 2021, the US announced another US$150 million package to deepen ties, which amounts to just one-tenth of China’s pledge in 2021 of US$1.5 billion development assistance for the following three years.
Without lowering tariffs and greater market access, the recently unveiled IPEF also fell short of expectations for many ASEAN countries. That Biden chose to unveil the highly anticipated IPEF in his visit to Japan, not during the US-ASEAN Special Summit held in Washington, as many had expected, is a clear sign ASEAN is no longer at the center of the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
In an article released on May 10 by Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Nick Bisley, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at Melbourne-based La Trobe University, argued the emergence of security groups such as the Quad and AUKUS marks “ASEAN’s declining centrality to security regionalism, which may reduce ASEAN’s importance in the region and to its members.”
Bisley said that the emerging minilaterals backed by the US are “small-scaled, narrowly focused, and result-oriented,” which are in stark contrast to “inclusive, process-focused mechanism” that are favored by ASEAN countries. “The new ‘minilaterals’ may indeed mark the end of the road for the existing inclusive approach to security multilateralism in the region,” Bisley warned.