US President Joe Biden will host leaders of the 10 Southeast Asian countries next week in Washington for the first face-to-face summit meeting since the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Not all Southeast Asian leaders are very eager to come to the United States.
Rodrigo Duterte will skip the May 12-13 meeting. His excuse: he doesn’t want to make commitments to agreements that would be struck at the summit. He would rather leave it to his successor to decide for the country on any deal between the US and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The Philippines will elect its new set of leaders on May 9.
Duterte is the only sitting president who has not visited the United States, the country’s closest military ally and former colonial master, during his term.
Whether Duterte is in a position to make any commitment or not, it will be a Joe Biden show as he attempts to drum up support not only to counter Washington’s rivals—Moscow and Beijing—but to create a new world order.
In a meeting with America’s lobbying organizations during the Business Roundtable in March, Biden spoke of a need for the United States to take the lead in creating a new world order—an American world order—as rival powers have started to challenge Washington’s supremacy.
During that meeting, Bidem said “now is a time when things are shifting. There’s going to be a new world order out there – and we’ve got to lead it. And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.”
His remarks could be interpreted in many ways. Washington has set up a “liberal” world order, protecting human rights as ethnic tensions erupted in Europe and Africa in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe.
Thirty years ago, the United States emerged as the world’s only superpower after the disintegration of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).
China was busy re-educating its citizens after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest that shocked the world as images on TV showed Chinese tanks running over protesters.
China slowly recovered and rose to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea, occupying a half-submerged reef in the Spratlys.
In two decades, China has built and transformed seven artificial islands into garrisons with anti-ship and anti-air missiles to guard three airstrips, and secured ports.
It also gained control of Scarborough Shoal in another part of the South China Sea.
While China was slowly rising and its influence expanded in the region, the United States’ power declined, drained by years of fighting threats from Islamist extremetists—first with the al Qaeda and later with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
By the time the US administration under Barack Obama focused on China’s rising threats in the region by announcing a “pivot to Asia” policy, China has become its strongest rival power.
At the same time, Washington has abandoned its role as the global law enforcer as Donald Trump was obsessed with strengthening the domestic economy and implementing inward-looking policies, including the pullout from Afghanistan.
In 2021, before he was elected, Biden promised to restore the US role in global affairs and cooperate closely with key allies and partners across the world, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO).
Next week’s US-ASEAN leaders’ summit could be one of the signals of the US return to the global stage to set up a new world order and lead the free world against rivals China and Russia.
Biden is expected to unveil Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s influence in the region, focusing on setting up an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and keeping a robust military posture.
The IPEF was designed as a counter to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Asean initiative. It described China’s trade relations with smaller economies in the region to be coercive while over-subsidizing its farmers and promoting unfair labor practices.
However, Washington was also putting undue pressure on a diverse region, like Asean, by imposing its own set of values, like its own brand of democracy, regional cooperation, and human rights protection.
Asean wants the region to be left alone and chart its own direction. Western-style democracy would not really work in the region.
There is no way a new regional architecture will work under US rules. Asean would want to be in the driver’s seat. Asean will continue to resist influences from both China and the United States.
The US has been criticizing China for the imbalance in its relations with Asean but Washington has also been treating the region not as co-equal but as pawns to build a larger coalition against its adversaries.
The US wants Asean states to fall in line behind efforts to stop the conflict in Eastern Europe by taking part in economic and political sanctions against Russia.
It would not be a surprise if Ukraine pops up as a major issue in the summit.
Biden will also have a chance to secure commitments from Asean leaders during next week’s summit to join Western sanctions on Moscow.
On the last Friday of April, during a defense officials’ dialogue at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), US officials raised the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US was joined by its allies, like Australia, Canada, European Union, Japan, and New Zealand.
Russia naturally defended itself, saying Ukraine is not an Asean member and it would be inappropriate to discuss an issue that is not on table. The main focus of the virtual conference was the military role in the global pandemic response.
The US and its allies are expected to continue raising the Ukraine issue in all ARF and Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus meetings and events.
Biden’s face-to-face meeting with Asean leaders would be the most effective pressure tactic. It would be the perfect cover for the Biden administration to begin creating a new world order, an American-centered world.