New US envoy to Asean brings hope of greater engagement: Analysts

Analysts say the new appointment offers hope for more intense Asean-US interactions, and is the reassurance that the region had sought.

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil

The Jakarta Post


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (fifth left) shakes hands the “ASEAN Way” for a group photo with his Southeast Asian counterparts ahead of the ASEAN-US Post-Ministerial Conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Aug. 4, 2022.(AFP/Pool/Andrew Harnik)

October 11, 2022

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s international relations community has welcomed the arrival of a new United States ambassador to ASEAN, after the post was left vacant for over five years despite Washington’s push for a greater Indo-Pacific presence.

Last week, former US National Security Council executive secretary Yohannes Abraham officially began his service in Jakarta as the new US Ambassador to ASEAN, after submitting his credentials to ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi. Ambassador Abraham was sworn in by US Vice President Kamala Harris on Sept. 19, 2022.

Analysts are saying that the new appointment offers hope for more intense ASEAN-US interactions and is the reassurance that the region had sought from the US to prove its seriousness in engaging with Southeast Asia.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior researcher on international politics and foreign policy at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN,) said that she welcomed the arrival of Ambassador Abraham, as his appointment showed that the US respected and acknowledged the importance of ASEAN in the region.

She said that while US envoys were usually rotated whenever a new US president was sworn in, the previous US administration under Donald Trump barely paid much attention to ASEAN, after dismissing the last envoy to hold the Jakarta post due to political rivalry. Furthermore, Trump only attended the East Asia Summit once throughout his entire term in office, in 2017.

The new administration under US President Joe Biden, in contrast, is keen on bringing back the Rebalancing to Asia policy formerly espoused by Biden’s boss at the time, Barack Obama. The only difference, Dewi noted, was Washington’s insistence on setting up “minilateral alliances” such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Australia-United Kingdom-US (AUKUS) security partnership to complete its Indo-Pacific strategy.

She also pointed out that the new US ambassador would need to rebuild trust with ASEAN.

“In Asia, being there and attending meetings are important. The process is just as important as concrete results, as it shows that you care,” Dewi said on Saturday.

Biden’s administration had taken its time to warm up to its ASEAN counterparts, splitting the work of engagement among several officials and focusing on the strongest alliances first. More than a year after his inauguration day, Biden finally hosted a US-ASEAN Summit in May.

Meanwhile, the head of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) international relations department, Lina Alexandra, said that filling the vacant post had resulted in high expectations that the US would pay serious attention to Southeast Asia.

Lina pointed to Abraham’s credentials, having held crucial positions in the Biden White House’s inner circle and even having a stint in the Obama administration, among other posts.

“Countries usually choose their ASEAN envoys from the second layer, not the top. So, Ambassador Abraham’s arrival has set up a lot of expectations [from ASEAN],” Lina said on Saturday. “We will have to wait and see how he interacts with ASEAN.”

For starters, there is hope the new envoy will be able to facilitate smoother communication between ASEAN and the US as partners of equal footing, and not see ASEAN as an object of contestation among major powers.

Lina’s colleague, Shafiah Muhibat, the CSIS deputy executive director for research, said in the meantime that ASEAN member states should temper their expectations for the time being, as Biden’s domestic audience “might see Europe or the Middle East as more important”.

“We should still be realistic even though we have high expectations for changes in US policy under Biden,” she said on Saturday.

As a region situated at the heart of a battle of influence contested between the US and China, Shafiah said that Southeast Asia should seek to remain independent of either superpower, who in spite of their contributions to the region still abide by the bigger interest of “winning” against their geopolitical rival.

“We shouldn’t hope to be prioritized more than their own national interests,” she told The Jakarta Post.

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