ASEAN-US Relations Consolidate under Vietnam Chairmanship

For the ASEAN, 2020 has been a turbulent year marked by COVID-19 that impacted in varying measures its political-diplomatic, economic, strategic and social ambitions and aspirations. The ASEAN, under Vietnam’s Chairmanship, has continued to consolidate relations with its Partners. Hanoi exhibited astute diplomacy, sustained the dialogue process and engaged in deliberations with Partner States on numerous issues (past, ongoing and future) on continual basis. These engagements have been held notwithstanding the constraints of travel and were successfully replaced by teleconferences.

Some of the major engagements between the ASEAN and the US involved the 11th Meeting of the ASEAN-US Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) in February 2020 where in both partners underscored their commitment to strengthen the strategic partnership. They noted with satisfaction the implementation of the ASEAN-US Plan of Action (2016-2020) and both sides agreed to work towards the “finalisation of the new Plan of Action (2021-2025) which will continue to support ASEAN’s efforts in the promotion of peace, security and prosperity in the region”. At the 33rd US -ASEAN Dialogue in August 2020, the US “reaffirmed its commitment to work with ASEAN in securing a region based on clear and transparent rules, and to strengthen the ASEAN-centered regional architecture” clearly acknowledging the centrality of ASEAN in the region.

The US and ASEAN (Vietnam as the Chair of the ASEAN) engaged in High-level Interagency Video Conference to Counter COVID-19 on 01 April 2020. Both sides exchanged notes, experiences and best practices on respective national initiatives on prevention and control of the pandemic. COVID-19 has triggered a new agenda for cooperation between the US and the ASEAN Member States on health related research, infrastructure, materials, services and human resource development. ASEAN Member States also shared information with the US about their plans of setting up of a special fund to responds to any future pandemics or public health emergencies. It was also conveyed to the US that ASEAN was exploring “partnership with its External Partners” to work together under regional cooperation mechanisms on health as also under the relevant EAS forum.

The US’ assistance to ASEAN Member States to combat the pandemic is significant and it “released more than $35.3 million in emergency health funding to help ASEAN countries fight the virus”. The continued US support for exchange programs also includes training of 2,400 ASEAN medical and health professionals to date and was acknowledged.

ASEAN Central and Pivotal to the Region
It is note worthy that Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State, while congratulating the ASEAN on the 53rd anniversary of its founding, was unequivocal in his remarks that the ASEAN ispivotal in fostering a “more stable, prosperous, and peaceful region” and that “ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms are at the heart of the US’ vision for the Indo-Pacific and that of our [US’] allies and partners.” Further more, the US-ASEAN strategic partnership contributes to their “shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, is perhaps a clear signal of US’ commitment to the ASEAN and its Member States.  

The 2019 US strategy document “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision” identifies ASEAN as the “geographical center of the Indo-Pacific” which not only possesses economic heft of a combined GDP of almost $3 trillion, is also pivotal to US’ Indo-Pacific security architecture. The strategy acknowledges that the June 2019 “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) has a number of “clear convergence between the principles enshrined” such as “inclusivity, openness, good governance, and respect for international law” with the US’ vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

However, US’ Position Paper titled “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea” avers that it is willing to stand with its “Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.” There have been mixed reactions among ASEAN Member States over the Position Paper due to a predicament of choosing between the US and China.

This sticky position should not be a surprise for ASEAN Member States given that they had long feared that choosing between the US and China would a litmus of ASEAN unity. In this context, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,during the 18th edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2019, in his keynote remarks noted that “Southeast Asia is no stranger to the great game of nations” and had cautioned about hardening of attitudes from both the US and China.

Trade and Foreign Direct Investment
In 2019, the ASEAN-US bilateral trade was $294 billion and the Foreign Direct Investment across ASEAN countries was pegged at $273 billion. The US continues to pursue economic, technical assistance and human capacity development cooperation through the USAID programs; the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is investing in infrastructure projects across the region; and the US-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership under the private sector engagement in smart city solutions and the digital economy is progressing well.

It is fair to argue that not with standing the rising tensions between the US and China over a host of bilateral issues as also over the South China Sea, the US remains committed to support the ASEAN’s efforts to restore growth and social wellbeing of its people who are impacted by the pandemic.

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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