Asean heads gear for summit with Biden
Can Asean and the US forge a "more united than ever" relationship for the future?
The answer depends on what transpires when US President Joe Biden hosts his Asean colleagues at the White House later this month.
The quote, which could feature in the joint vision statement, highlights a mutual desire on the part of Asean and the US to show the world that their relations are rock-solid. At this juncture, both sides have to find both common and middle ground given the current high-pressure strategic environment. There are also many serious issues to be discussed covering the post Covid-19 economic recovery, technologies and innovation, the climate crisis, maritime domains, the Mekong subregion and human capital development, to name but a few.
Regional issues such as Myanmar, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula will be discussed. But with the crisis in Ukraine, in some Asean capitals there is a prevailing fear that the Russia-Ukraine quagmire could hijack the summit in DC. Washington has reassured Asean of its constructive role and reiterated its unwaveringly support for the five-point consensus for the crisis in Myanmar.
After several schedule changes, Asean leaders became exasperated about the proposed meeting with Mr Biden in Washington DC. Half the Asean leaders were not happy with the US because they had proposed several dates for the Biden team to consider but the US side kept changing the schedule. As such, anxiety slowly built up with a feeling that maybe it would be better to do away with the special summit.
Sensing the discontent, Mr Biden's wrote a personal letter to all Asean leaders confirming that the summit was still on. Ten days later, the White House announced unilaterally that the second special Asean-US summit would be held on 28-29 March, much to the chagrin of those concerned over here. As of the time of writing, some Asean leaders will be absent from the DC summit if the host refuses to accommodate the newly proposed dates of 26-27 March.
It must be noted that here that the first Asean-US special summit in Sunnylands, California, in February 2016 was agreed without any difficulties because the former president Barack Obama understood the circumstances of each Asean leader well. Given their excellent leadership rapport development over the years, they immediately agreed on the dates in early February.
This great summit was historic in the sense that it did not take long to determine. The leaders met in a casual manner and released a beautiful group photo along with a 17-point declaration of their common visions. It was a very comprehensive document. But after Mr Obama left the presidency, Donald Trump literally did not pay any attention and let Asean-US ties move into auto-pilot mode. He did not bother to attend any Asean summit in its entirety. He did attend one in a half-baked way when the Philippines was the Asean chair in November 2017 but left for home midway through.
After missing the Asean-related summit in Bangkok in 2019, Mr Trump said he would hold a special US-Asean summit in Las Vegas during the second week of March on the wonderful theme of human capital development. However, the whole scheme collapsed due to the outbreak of Covid-19 in December 2019. Since then, Asean-US ties have been left in cold storage with no rapport between the leaders. When Mr Biden came to power, he managed to demonstrate Washington's interests in the region through a new form of alliance and security cooperation. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and Free and Open Indo-Pacific are top priorities for the US as these new mechanisms' main purpose is to promote American interests through the realignment of strategic objectives of allies and friends in the region.
One caveat is in order. If there is no change to the proposed dates of the summit, it is almost certain that half of the Asean leaders will not be able to attend. The Muslim members have to celebrate Ramadan. Thailand has also insisted that on 26 and 27 March, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has to attend the Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thailand has to be there in person as Bangkok will be handing over the baton to the grouping's next chair.
However, Indonesia, as the Asean-US country coordinator, is still working on schedule. Given the current geopolitical circumstances, it would be a boon for Washington to have the nine Asean leaders, minus the military junta leader in Myanmar, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in the capital of the world's most powerful country. Indeed, it would speak volumes about what is going to happen in the coming months of Asean-US relations.
Make no mistake, the special summit, which was proposed by Mr Biden during the Asean-US summit in October last year, will not be a free lunch. It will be a smorgasbord of issues that both sides would like to tell the world, especially at this juncture when the East-West relationship is under severe stress. Russia's military action in Ukraine has ruptured global stability in the most unfathomable ways. Most importantly, it would impact the current international order, to which Asean, as a regional organisation with its own inborn regional architecture, needs to pay attention. Otherwise, the 10 members could became pawns in the superpowers' game of brinksmanship.
After the Feb 26 statement, Asean came out with another statement on March 3, which contained three appeals. First of all, Asean called for an immediate ceasefire to create an enabling environment for negotiations to end the crisis. Secondly, the grouping called for a peaceful dialogue to prevent the situation from getting "out of control". Finally, Asean stands ready to facilitate, in any possible way, peaceful dialogue among the parties concerned.
As it turned out, Asean's dialogue partners were disappointed with the Asean statements saying that the grouping should have had the courage to name Russia in their statements and impose sanctions as Western countries have done. In Thailand, Western ambassadors from 25 countries jointly appealed to the Thai Foreign Ministry asking that Thailand be bolder in showing solidarity with the global community over the blatant acts committed against Ukraine.
On March 3, Thailand did. When the UN members voted on the special UNGA resolution on Ukraine, Thailand joined other 140 members in voting in favour of the resolution. Both Vietnam and Laos abstained from voting. Cambodia, which voted in favour, was also a co-sponsor of the resolution. Asean's diverse position regarding the UNGA resolution is indicative of each member's dynamism and independence.
In the case of Thailand, it adheres to the principles of the UN Charter and international law, which underwrite the respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the non-use of force against states. With its border with Myanmar, the Thai vote reflects its deep concerns for the plight of affected civilians and of the humanitarian consequences of the hostilities and violence in Ukraine. Therefore, it is important to fully comply with international humanitarian law.
Finally, Thailand is also worried about the long-term repercussions on the rules-based international order and has called on all parties to enhance dialogue through various means to realise a peaceful settlement of the situation. It is not surprising at all that Thailand's reasons for voting in favour of the resolution stem from its experience in dealing with issues at hand and at home.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs