Biden’s Southeast Asia trip reflects China’s growing influence: Experts

As both Washington and Beijing have been pulling all the stops to win the Indo-Pacific area over, the US-ASEAN relationship has transformed into being largely defined by China.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


Thailand’s Prayut Chan-O-Cha (left), Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (second left), United States President Joe Biden (center), Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (second right) and Indonesia’s President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo pose for pictures during the ASEAN-US Summit as part of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh on Nov. 12.(AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy)

November 16, 2022

JAKARTA – Amid rampant insecurities over Chinese foreign policies in Southeast Asia, United States President Joe Biden’s week-long visit to the region was perfectly timed to Washington’s advantage, experts say, while noting that concrete follow-ups would still be needed to secure a strong relationship between the two regions.

Biden’s showing up to both the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh and the Group of 20 Summit in Bali has been considered a “hallmark” attempt to advance Washington’s influence in the region, as it presented a relief to Southeast Asian countries concerned with China’s unprecedented power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Riza Noer Arfani, an international relations expert from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), said that while the visit may showcase the US’ commitment to the region, much work had to be done to ensure the relationship’s sustainability.

“The visit is an effective display of [Biden’s] seriousness in engaging with Southeast Asia. But what ASEAN leaders would be looking toward is the follow-up to these visits,” he told The Jakarta Post.

As both Washington and Beijing have been pulling all the stops to win the Indo-Pacific area over, the US-ASEAN relationship has transformed into being largely defined by China.

Dafri Agussalim, another UGM international relations expert, said more actions from Washington were expected. “The US commitment to building a good relationship with Southeast Asia has been emphasized by the visit. Statements will not suffice. A follow-up [would],” he said.

‘Crucially important’

On Thursday, upon Biden’s arrival in Cambodia, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters that one of Washington’s primary objectives was to demonstrate the “strength, breadth and depth” of the US commitment to the region, emphasizing that Washington’s partnerships with ASEAN countries were “crucially important”.

“I think it is clear that America’s high-level engagements […] are a testament to how central the Indo-Pacific is not only to the US security and prosperity but also to that of our combined 1 billion people,” Kritenbrink said.

“I think [the] success [of] these summits, from our perspective, is a further deepening of our critical relationship with ASEAN,” added Yohannes Abraham, the US ambassador to ASEAN.

On Saturday, Biden and ASEAN leaders launched the US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) to “elevate” the relationship between the two. The CSP was drafted to promote cooperation on electric vehicles and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as maritime and economic cooperation.

‘Stronger bargaining power’

Dafri argued that for better or worse, Southeast Asian countries had no other choice but to maintain their relationship with the US if they wished to stay neutral amid the intense political rivalry.

“There really is no other choice but to bring the US onto the scene, even when we know that its domestic landscape is currently unstable. The US is still China’s primary neutralizer,” said Dafri. “We can look at it positively, though. We have stronger bargaining power because of it.”

Though numerous surveys have indicated that most of the ASEAN populace perceives China as the superior economic partner compared with the US, findings have also revealed that skepticism toward Beijing runs high when it comes to political and security matters.

Since Biden took up office, there has also been an increase in ASEAN’s welcoming attitude to the US asserting its presence in the region, an ISEAS study found.

Evi Fitriani, an international relations expert from the University of Indonesia (UI), said that Washington still had its work cut out since ASEAN members were not homogenous in their global leanings.

“There are countries like Singapore and the Philippines which are allies of the US. But there are also countries like Cambodia, an ally of China. Indonesia will also not promise any alliance with its free and active politics,” she told the Post.

The US, Evi added, was also at a disadvantage for its preference of cooperating through bilateral instead of multilateral means. While China was the first external actor to have signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2003, it took the US another six years before fully agreeing to the bloc’s terms of cooperation.

“We have to understand that Biden’s visit is solely out of concern for China. There is strength here. The best ASEAN can do is to unite and use the rivalry to its advantage.”

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