US ASEAN Summit is a contrast to the 2016 event with some tough talking expected behind the scenes as the United States continues to pursue a more robust line in countering China with both military alliances and pacts as well as a new economic framework to deepen bilateral engagement with countries within the increasingly significant 10 nation bloc.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is in Washington DC to attend the US ASEAN Summit with speculation the United States is set to unveil its new framework for economic engagement with the region. It comes as Thai and US officials have already met as part of the US-Thailand Strategic and Defence Dialogue process, a framework for deepening the US Thai relationship developed between the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department. The summit comes as China has warned ASEAN countries that the United States is seeking to promote tensions and another cold war in East Asia as a means to impede its progress and counter the ‘trend of the times’ in a campaign that it claims is not in the region’s interests.
It is already clear that this week’s US ASEAN summit will be a wide-ranging one which will see the participants engage in discussions on economic development, security as well as regional and geopolitical tensions with China as well as efforts by the 10 nation ASEAN bloc to recover from the pandemic.
The meeting between the superpower and the increasingly significant Southeast Asian bloc of nations comes amid rapidly rising tensions in the Indo pacific between China and the United States supported by other Western and Asian powers.
Contrast from last 2016 US ASEAN summit in California in the waning months of the Obama era
It is quite a contrast from the last time such a meeting was held in the waning months of the Obama Presidency in California which came less than a year before the United States, under President Donald Trump, pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, one of his first foreign policy moves which was to be followed by his tariffs on Chinese imports and a renewed focus on security in the Indo Pacific, particularly concerning the threat posed to Taiwan by Beijing.
America’s response to, what has since been seen by some commentators as a lost opportunity for its power in the region, may be presented at this week’s two-day conference.
However, things have moved on a lot since 2017 and the stakes have been raised higher with a complete change in US policy towards China.
America sounds the alarm on China’s expansionism in the Indo Pacific and a need for joint security
The summit is seen by foreign policy experts as an attempt by the United States to get the ASEAN countries to sit up and pay more attention to the security situation in the region and the threat posed by China while the countries themselves are known to be wary about being drawn into any conflict and would rather see more economic engagement by the United States.
It has also to be said that the ad hoc nature of America’s engagement in recent decades and its sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan weighs negatively on the minds of its Asian partners while, on the other hand, the decisive US response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come as a shock and sparked new attention.
Eight ASEAN leaders will attend the summit over two days with the outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, staying away while the Myanmar junta regime has not been invited.
It is the first such meeting since US President Biden took office 17 months ago.
New economic framework to be unveiled emphasising bilateral trade relationships and democratic values
While the key goal of the summit from the point of view of US representatives is to increase the focus on the growing threat from China, the Americans are also set to present and pursue an initiative in the pipeline for some time, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which will provide a structural basis and framework for deeper economic cooperation between the United States and ASEAN countries going forward.
This is designed to provide a bilateral framework with each country as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership which later went into effect as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The concern over the initiative from sceptics in ASEAN countries is that this may mean the United States seeking deeper cooperation on security matters as well as progress on human rights protection and democratic values in a quid pro quo for more productive economic engagement.
United States drawing a line under old relationships and its approach to trade while strengthening military alliances which cannot be underestimated
This would, of course, be in marked contrast to China, a partner which is also closer to home.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States is drawing a line under which countries it wants to build deeper trade links in the region with while establishing new military alliances to counter the Chinese.
How this works in practice, only time will tell but, based on the response to the Ukrainian crisis, it would be a mistake to underestimate Washington and as we have seen from China’s reaction this week, the response from Beijing also.
China’s FM warns of a new cold war and arms race as America attempts to counter ‘the trend of the times’
The summit is coming after intense Chinese diplomatic activity in the last week which has seen China, through its Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seeking to encourage ASEAN to continue to prioritise regional development and cooperation while warning that the United States is seeking to create another cold war or an arms race in the region to impede it.
Speaking on Friday last, by video call, to Indonesian official Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, China’s top diplomat warned that the United States is simply seeking to reverse the current momentum of development in the region powered by China through a new arms race.
‘The US Indo-Pacific strategy goes against the trend of the times and does not serve the common and long-term interests of countries in East Asia,’ he said.
ASEAN bloc nations are wary of taking sides and are caught between what they see as dangerous American idealism and threatening Chinese expansionism
ASEAN nations find themselves pulled between a strong desire to preserve peace and stability to foster economic growth but also amid growing doubts and concern about China’s actions including its naval build-up, operations in the South China Sea and expansionism.
In the United States, the Biden administration has become more vocal and strident in warning not only about the growing threat from China but what it sees as a new political reality that rejects the old world of detente and realpolitik in favour of forging closer economic ties with ‘democratic’ countries who respect democratic principles.
Vicious US sanctions on Russia open the door to a new, more polarised order also in the Asia Pacific, clearly aimed at China as a ‘cautionary’ tale
This approach appears to Asian nations with different traditions and cultures to America as somewhat dangerous idealism with sceptics pointing to well-intentioned American nation-building efforts in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, this idealism is increasingly being embraced by young people across the region notably in Thailand, Myanmar, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The new policy is certainly not universally welcomed among ASEAN members who have, in the past, prided themselves on the principle of non-interference in the affairs of member countries.
American administration sees war in Ukraine as a watershed and defining moment in world history
However, the United States increasingly sees the war in Ukraine as a catalyst for emphasising these principles and also as a salutary lesson to China concerning its future intentions toward Taiwan.
This policy line has seen a stronger alliance and a more unified stance between the United States and the European Union.
The change has been particularly impressive in western Europe where populations have accepted economic hardships as a response to the war and the imperative of defeating what is perceived as Russian aggression.
It has also seen firmly neutral European states move to abandon their positions to create a joint front against President Vladimir Putin.
The strength of America’s response to the Ukraine invasion both in terms of military support and unprecedented sanctions on Russia which saw the US dollar weaponised is seen as a statement of clear intent by the Biden administration that its crusade for democratic values and human rights is no longer just rhetoric.
Thailand will reassert its neutrality at the summit although the kingdom voted with western countries in early March in condemning Russia’s invasion
Going into the summit, Thailand has reasserted its neutral position on the Russia Ukraine war although Bangkok did vote to condemn Russia in early March in the historic UN General Assembly vote when it voted with western countries.
There are also some hints of change in Thailand’s position, not least the signing of a defence pact with Japan last week when Japan’s Premier Fumio Kishida visited Bangkok on a tour which saw Mr Kishida also visit London where a defence pact was finalised with the United Kingdom.
Japan is a founding member of the Quad defence alliance which also includes India, Australia and the United States.
This has been followed in the Indo Pacific by the AUKUS pact announced in September last year between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States which has recently seen British warships return to the region.
The tour of countries last week by Mr Kishida included Thailand, Italy, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The international travels of the Japanese PM drew a furious response from Beijing who accused the Japanese leader, who assumed power last October, of ‘provoking confrontation’ between China and other countries
Seething Chinese attack on Japan’s PM after visiting Bangkok and other capitals last week which saw new defence pacts with both Thailand and the UK
The seething statement from Beijing did not hold back: ‘The Japanese side frequently uses diplomatic activities to talk about China, play up regional tensions, and hype the so-called China threat. What Japan is doing is finding an excuse for its own expansion of military power, and to undermine the trust and cooperation of countries in the region.’
While in London, Premier Kishida was undeterred in highlighting the danger posed to the region and singled out the Chinese threat to Taiwan.
‘Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are critical not only for Japan’s security but also for the stability of international society,’ he declared. ‘Ukraine may be in East Asia tomorrow.’
The Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha is expected to take part in face to face discussions with President Biden and top officials at the White House and according to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials this week, he will reiterate Thailand’s commitment to seeking a peaceful solution to the war in Ukraine while upholding the territorial sovereignty of all nations.
Thailand expecting to come under pressure from US officials on sanctions, will seek help to build peace
Officials at the ministry including Director-general for American and Pacific South Pacific Affairs, Chettaphan Maksamphan, have already briefed the PM that Ukraine will be brought up at the conference with Thailand facing increased pressure to take part on sanctions against Russia.
At the same time, Thailand will be seeking any assistance possible from the United States in bringing about a resolution to the conflict which is causing severe economic hardship at home in the kingdom.
‘We also want to see the US supporting cooperation among every party because, during this time, every country is affected by the Ukraine-Russia conflict and other conflicts in various regions,’ explained Ms Usana Berananda, the Director-general of the ASEAN section at the ministry. ‘We are still suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic but every country wants to see a peaceful and cooperative environment in the region and the international community.’
PM to meet US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, the potential deal to purchase F35 jets will be raised
The PM is already scheduled to have a tête-à-tête with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin during which General Prayut is expected to raise Thailand’s interest in purchasing 4 F35 advanced fighter jets as agreed by the cabinet on January 11th for ฿13.8 billion.
US military officials have just agreed to send a fact-finding mission to Thailand to examine the facilities and preparedness of the Royal Thai Air Force for hosting the aircraft.
The purchase of the jets by Thailand will require approval from the White House and Congress before it can go ahead.
General Prayut is also scheduled to meet key business leaders on his trip stateside to help drum up further investment in Thailand and to support the kingdom’s renewed efforts to reopen to international tourism and business.
Bilateral meetings between Thai and US officials took place this week in Washington DC at the State Department to discuss security and economic matters
Reports suggest that ahead of the US ASEAN summit on Thursday and Friday there were meetings on Monday and Tuesday between Thai and US officials to discuss the US-Thailand Strategic and Defence Dialogue, the most significant engagement since the pandemic crisis.
A statement issued by the State Department following the conference reaffirmed the two country’s long-standing treaty alliance and also touched on areas such as economic cooperation and work on strengthening mutual cybersecurity as well as activities in space.
The communiqué spoke of a deeper person to person relationship between the kingdom’s officials and those of the United States, a bilateral relationship that both countries have enjoyed for 190 years.
It spoke of a renewed commitment to work together on shared values and principles on human rights including efforts to combat human trafficking as well as the crisis in Burma.