Illustration: Craig Stephens
Yuan Ruichen
Yuan Ruichen

In the ‘new era’ of US-Asean relations, China still has a strong role to play in the region

  • After the US-Asean special summit, it is clear that Washington has realised it must recognise Southeast Asian nations’ own vision for regional development and inclusivity
  • The phrasing of the joint statement opens up space for US-China coexistence

On May 12, US President Biden took a photo with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the South Lawn of the White House. Biden’s broad smile contrasts sharply with Asean leaders’ cautious expressions. Look closer, though, and the former’s smile seemed forced, while the latter may have been quietly pleased.

The two-day special summit marked the first time that Asean leaders have gathered in Washington. “We’re not only celebrating 45 years of partnership and friendship between Asean and the US, we’re launching a new era – a new era in US-Asean relations,” Biden announced.

The two sides released a 28-point “vision statement” promising to upgrade their strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November.
What Biden said is true. This summit does mark a new era for Asean-US relations. But Biden was less willing to spell out what characterises this new era – namely, equality between both sides. Asean countries have long been dissatisfied with a relationship in which the US has been the dominant partner.

Now, Biden has publicly stated that Asean centrality is “the very heart of my administration’s strategy in pursuing the future we all want to see”. There are signs this sentiment will be translated into practical policies. In the new era, the US is being forced to support Asean’s vision, driven by a need to enhance regional leadership to balance China’s power.

Pushing Asean countries to “choose a side” is a thing of the past. All participants are aware of the shift towards promoting Asean’s own strategic position.
US President Joe Biden (centre) poses with leaders of the US-Asean Special Summit in front of the White House in Washington on March 12.

In addition to emphasising “the principles of equality, partnership, consultation, and mutual respect”, the joint statement contains several points worthy of attention.

First, there seems to be greater consensus on building and maintaining the regional order. At one time, the US advocated the construction of a closed and exclusive regional order prioritising security, a far cry from the vision of openness and development conceived in the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

According to the joint statement, the goal of strengthening US-Asean relations is to promote stability and prosperity as well as peace and security in the region, indicating that the US is paying attention to Asean’s core interests.

Also of note is the promotion of regional strategic interests. At first, Asean didn’t buy the Indo-Pacific strategy, largely because it neglected Asean centrality.

The joint statement now affirms that “both the [Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific] and the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States share relevant fundamental principles in promoting an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture, in which Asean is central, alongside partners who share in these goals”.

This is significant: Washington is willing to meet the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific part of the way.


British warship Queen Elizabeth makes Singapore stop to reaffirm Asia presence

British warship Queen Elizabeth makes Singapore stop to reaffirm Asia presence

The third noteworthy point is the planned establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership. Since the end of the Cold War, China-Asean relations have been warming, consolidating into a multilevel and multichannel system of cooperation which has benefited Asean development.

On November 22, 2021, China and Asean announced their strategic partnership would be upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The two sides also agreed to cooperate in the development of infrastructure and of a digital and green economy.

As a result, the US has faced pressure to upgrade its own relations with Asean and fulfil its commitments to the region. The White House’s promise to establish an “Asean-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial” at the 10th Asean-US Summit this November is entirely consistent with the China-Asean version.

The fourth takeaway is the potential for future cooperation between China and the US. At the insistence of Asean members, “China” does not appear in the full text of the joint statement. This both appeases US sensitivity regarding its post-hegemonic status in the Indo-Pacific and opens up space for US-China coexistence in the region.

Elsewhere, the statement identifies fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, addressing climate change and maintaining a nuclear weapon-free zone, as well as strengthening connectivity, maritime cooperation, and technological development, bearing a strong resemblance to areas mentioned in the China-Asean comprehensive strategic partnership.

In all, the summit was to the relative benefit of Asean. Its leaders had reason to exhibit composure rather than forced cheer.

China, for its part, supports regional cooperation. On the US-Asean summit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on May 13, “China and Asean do not seek zero-sum games and don’t promote bloc confrontation. China welcomes all cooperation initiatives as long as they can promote long-term and sustainable development and common prosperity in the region.”

In the future, giving the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific full play and forging a connection between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy should be Asean’s high-level goal as this would enable its development by building an inclusive regional order.

Asean must step up or risk losing everything

On the development front, the US has promised to “catalyse investment in high-standard, transparent, low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure projects that advance inclusive and sustainable economic growth”. However, it won’t be easy to meet the practical connectivity needs of Asean countries, and the costs for the US will be high.

Here, China may have the advantage. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can provide support, promote cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2025, and extend it to the digital and green economy.

China also has an edge over the US in developing the Asean digital market as Beijing has made efforts in recent years to deepen digital economic cooperation. Such cooperation could eventually lead to the joint formulation of digital trade standards, pushing the China-Asean comprehensive strategic partnership to a new level.

Yuan Ruichen is a research assistant at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Peking University