Illustration: Craig Stephens
C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar

Differences within Asean and Quad could sink US Indo-Pacific agenda

  • While the Biden administration tries to bolster US alliances and partnerships in the region, internal differences threaten to undercut cohesion
  • Divergent positions on Russia, China, trade and Asean centrality will plague efforts to create a united front against regional concerns
US President Joe Biden hosted Southeast Asian leaders at an in-person summit in Washington on May 13, hailing it as the beginning of a “ new era” in the relations between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Myanmar and the Philippines were not represented at the summit, with the former being excluded after the military coup and the latter being in the midst of a major electoral transition.

While the joint statement between the US and Asean was comprehensive and well-meaning, it was rather declaratory and subtle differences over a range of issues were discernible. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and anxiety over China were among the major areas of divergence at the summit.

There is likely to be a similar tenor at the Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24, where Biden will meet leaders from Japan, India and Australia.
The national election in Australia on May 21 will pit the current ruling Liberal coalition against the Labor opposition. China has become a major issue in the campaign, with both sides trying to appear tough in relation to the policy on Beijing they will follow if they are voted into power.
To that extent, the Tokyo summit could see a new leader in Canberra. This in turn could shift Australia’s orientation towards China and have an impact on the efficacy of the Quad as well as the Aukus agreement that brings together Australia, Britain and the US in the nuclear submarine domain of the Indo-Pacific.

The outcome of the US-Asean summit was modest. The differences on major strategic issues – such as the war in Ukraine and how to deal with China – were palpable and will have a bearing on the subtext of the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.

The US under Biden has sought to convey its resolve to work with allies, partners and like-minded nations to temper China’s belligerence. Investment in Asean, the Quad and Aukus are part of this broad spectrum effort.
There were two tangible takeaways from the US-Asean summit. The first was the appointment of Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff on the National Security Council, as US ambassador to Asean. This is a significant signal of US commitment to Asean as the position had been unoccupied since 2017, when then-president Donald Trump and his administration were less than enthusiastic about the bloc.
The other announcement with potential is the nascent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). More details about this new initiative are expected to be unveiled at the Tokyo Quad summit.
The US is pitching the IPEF as an innovative framework where flexibility and inclusion are the central features and countries that join can pick and choose the domains they wish to be part of. It will consist of four pillars: fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, decarbonisation and clean energy; and taxation and anti-corruption.
US President Joe Biden (left) speaks with Asean leaders at the US-Asean special summit in Washington on May 14. Photo: DPA

The IPEF could be seen as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but it is still tentative and yet to be fleshed out in the kind of detail that would allow nations to make their choices.

The US puts heavy importance on India’s participation in the IPEF, and in turn New Delhi has indicated it sees the framework in a “positive light” and is willing to explore the supply chain resilience basket for cooperation. Japan and Australia are also expected to join the IPEF, while the likes of South Korea, Singapore and other Asean nations might also be interested.

US Indo-Pacific economic strategy could edge out China’s digital silk road

Trade is a major factor for Asean nations, and their dependence on China is significant. China is the largest trading partner for the bloc, with total trade in goods last year reaching US$878.2 billion, a year-on-year increase of 28 per cent.

In contrast, total US-Asean trade was US$362.2 billion in 2020, less than half the level with China. Hence, Asean faces a dilemma if forced to make a binary choice between Washington and Beijing.

The major trading bloc in the Indo-Pacific is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The US was part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which emerged during the Obama administration but which the US abandoned under Trump in early 2017. Japan resurrected the TPP in the form of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, the 15-member RCEP includes China, Japan, Australia and other regional nations but not the US and India. All 10 Asean nations are part of RCEP and appear to have made their trade choice in favour of China.


RCEP: 15 Asia-Pacific countries sign world’s largest free-trade deal

RCEP: 15 Asia-Pacific countries sign world’s largest free-trade deal
The Quad summit in Tokyo could see the IPEF gain some traction, but it is clear that, just as in the Asean summit, there are differences among the group. Like Asean nations other than Singapore, India has not explicitly condemned Russia for invading Ukraine and has China as its major trading partner. The latter is despite lingering territorial disputes and the deadly military skirmish in Ladakh in June 2020.

‘Japan is feeling anxious’ as Biden’s visit coincides with US’ IPEF launch

Japan is part of the Quad but also a participant in RCEP, so it will be instructive to see how Tokyo picks and chooses its engagement with the IPEF. Amid all this, it appears the much-touted “ Asean centrality” in the region is more rhetorical than substantive.

Otherwise, there would have been some degree of harmonisation between the Asean summit and the run-up to Tokyo. The reality is that Washington has not kept Asean in the loop with respect to the Quad or Aukus.

The emergence of issue-based clusters wedded to narrow national interests that trump political or ideological divides seems to be the new global flavour. The major powers will need to acquire different types of dexterity as they navigate turbulence over climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi