May 16, 2022 | Policy Brief

President Biden’s Missed Opportunities at U.S.-ASEAN Summit

May 16, 2022 | Policy Brief

President Biden’s Missed Opportunities at U.S.-ASEAN Summit

President Joe Biden hosted an in-person summit last week with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a bloc of 10 countries with a total annual GDP of approximately $3 trillion. While the Biden administration billed the summit as an opportunity to signal its renewed commitment to the region, the White House gathering resulted in few tangible outcomes and received scant media coverage, likely compounding regional concerns that Washington has no clear agenda for the Indo-Pacific.

Overall, Biden has held few substantive engagements with ASEAN leaders, although he did attend last October’s virtual heads-of-state summit, an event that former President Donald Trump skipped during all four years of his administration. Apart from that one engagement, Biden has not held a single bilateral telephone call with any ASEAN leader since assuming office. Moreover, Biden decided against conducting any one-on-one exchanges with ASEAN leaders on the margins of last week’s White House gathering.

The ASEAN summit’s agenda focused primarily on COVID-19 recovery efforts and global health security, climate change, promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, and deepening people-to-people ties. There was little emphasis on security matters, such as China’s unlawful claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. Moreover, summit attendees largely avoided discussing the deteriorating situation in Myanmar, including whether to boost support for Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a group formed in exile by elected officials ousted during the 2021 military coup.

On the economic front, White House officials rebuffed appeals by ASEAN leaders for enhanced U.S. market access. This snub is consistent with Biden’s moratorium on any new trade deals, even those that could potentially help ASEAN countries reduce their dependence on China. During the lead-up to the summit, the White House also declined to unveil any substantive details regarding its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will reportedly focus on a series of unenforceable agreements involving “fair and resilient trade,” supply chain resilience, decarbonization, and anti-corruption policies. IPEF is unlikely, however, to meaningfully improve U.S. market access for ASEAN countries or their companies.

At the summit’s conclusion, the White House announced plans to provide ASEAN countries with $150 million in infrastructure, security, and pandemic-related assistance. Of that, Washington committed $40 million to reducing the carbon footprint associated with the region’s power supply. ASEAN countries will also receive funds to develop digital economies and legal frameworks for artificial intelligence. Regrettably, Washington’s meager contributions pale in comparison to the $1.5 billion in development assistance that China pledged to ASEAN countries last fall.

Moving forward, Biden’s disinterest in conducting regular leader-to-leader exchanges with his ASEAN counterparts, as well as the White House’s refusal to consider a more robust regional trade agenda, will severely hamper the administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Regarding the IPEF, the White House has thus far not outlined what incentives it intends to offer ASEAN countries to secure their participation. The administration’s reliance on executive orders rather than legislation or formal trade treaties to enact IPEF-related deals also raises questions about what deals, if any, will outlast Biden’s time in office. The adjudication process for resolving IPEF-related disputes also appears unclear.

While Biden neglected ASEAN diplomacy even before the invasion of Ukraine, the war is likely to hinder any nascent efforts to shift American policymaker attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific. That concern, one felt widely in the region, was recently voiced by Ong Keng Yong, former secretary-general of ASEAN and Singapore’s current ambassador-at-large, who noted that “[s]ince the end of the Second World War, it is obvious that Europe comes first to the U.S. before any other region of the world.” Beijing will be keen to take advantage of Washington’s policy void to expand its economic, political, and security-related commitments throughout the region, with an eye towards further eroding Washington’s influence.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program. For more analysis from Craig and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific