Woody Allen said, “eighty percent of success is showing up.” US President Joe Biden’s absence at the Asean Summit is a big demerit on his watch. Somebody should have reminded him that the bloc, with a gross domestic product of more than $2.9 trillion and a population of 647 million people, is collectively the fourth-largest trading partner of the US.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Karishma Vaswani said: “Delhi, Hanoi, but not Jakarta. US President Biden is skipping the Asean meeting this week, and sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead. The optics aren’t great, especially as Biden is going to be in the region: He’s travelling to Delhi for the Group of 20 summit and Hanoi right after.”
“No matter what anyone says, getting the consolation prize is never fun. And that’s what it must feel like for Indonesia, the host of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering. Not only is Biden not attending, he’s snubbing a major regional power,” Vaswani added.
The harsh reality is that some Asian countries are simply more important to the US than others. “It is a cold, calculated decision to reinforce the ongoing stress on consolidating individual allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and now Vietnam,” says Michael Vatikiotis, author of several books on Asia, including Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia. “It’s all about spooking China—and picking each of these countries off one by one is easier, rather than in a multilateral forum where Beijing will be present.”
The deliberate cherry picking of allies and partners is the brainchild of Kurt Campbell, Biden’s key Asia policy czar, according to Vaswani. The strategy is to create a network around China—a carefully strung together geographic necklace of countries that all see Beijing as a mutual threat.
In his Bloomberg article—Biden’s Asean snub prompts soul-searching over bloc’s relevance—Philip J. Heijmans said Biden’s absence in Asean this year is more disappointing to the region than when Donald Trump made a habit of skipping those summits. This time, however, former diplomats are saying the blame lies with the bloc itself.
“This is a manifestation of the gradual sense of drift and the increasing question mark about Asean’s relevance,” said former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. “Asean has allowed these meetings to become so robotic and so procedural—almost disconnected from the wider basic dynamics of our region.”
Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Asean members are not bound by a commitment to go to war in the event of an attack against one of its members. And while Southeast Asia’s foreign policy is geared toward avoiding becoming a geopolitical battleground, conflicting interests have stood in the way of having a strong consensus on longstanding threats, Heijmans said.
“In no place is that more apparent than the oil and gas rich South China Sea, where regular incursions by Chinese vessels have forced the Philippines and Vietnam to bolster their own claims. Just last week, the two joined India in their opposition to a new Chinese map.”
In a speech at the Asean Summit on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang underscored China’s importance as the world’s second-biggest economy and as the top trading partner of Asean. Ignoring the fact that China’s bullying in the South China Sea only promotes discord and instability, Li cited China’s long history of friendship with Southeast Asia, including joint efforts to fight Covid.
Asean members, however, registered their protests against China’s aggression at sea. President Marcos has expressed his alarm over recent combativeness in the disputed waters. In early August, a Chinese coast guard ship fired a water cannon to try to block a Philippine Navy-operated boat that was bringing supplies to Philippine forces at the Ayungin Shoal.
“We do not seek conflict, but it is our duty as citizens and as leaders to always rise to meet any challenge to our sovereignty, to our sovereign rights, and our maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea,” Marcos told fellow Asean leaders. Natalegawa called Asean’s failure to condemn China’s aggressive acts “a deafening silence.”
Some critics have dismissed Asean as “toothless and irrelevant” because “it ducks the big questions and seeks consensus by compromise.” Observers are wondering: When will Asean address the elephant in the room?
China’s aggressive behavior against its members is a “severe test of Asean’s unity, purpose and resolve.” One can’t take pride in a community where neighbors don’t care for each other. The bloc’s absence of response when a member gets bullied only proves the critics right—Asean has yet to discover what it cares about.