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ASEAN nations not chess pieces for US

By CHEN YINGQUN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-21 09:20

A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on October 28, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

Pressure expected at Washington talks, but bloc seen resisting host's agenda

ASEAN countries that have long taken centrality as an important principle to govern regional affairs should not be turned into chess pieces for major-power rivalry, analysts said in the lead-up to a US-ASEAN summit next month.

US President Joe Biden will host a summit for the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on May 12-13 in Washington, according to a White House statement.

The summit, originally scheduled for March, will "demonstrate the United States' enduring commitment to ASEAN … and commemorate 45 years of US-ASEAN relations", according to the statement.

S. Mahmud Ali, an associate fellow at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, said the US has been increasingly afflicted with what he termed displacement anxiety. That means there is even greater reason for Washington to engage with states that have not taken sides in the US framework of great-power competition. "So, I guess China may not be directly named, but its looming presence will be felt," he said.

He said that most ASEAN nations have not taken sides in the Ukraine conflict, so US pressure for ASEAN members to condemn Russia and enforce Western sanctions is also likely to be on the agenda of the summit.

Moreover, the US has for many years formally endorsed the notion of ASEAN centrality in the development of the security architecture across Southeast Asia. "And yet, in the negotiations leading to the proclamation of the AUKUS grouping last year, ASEAN was not consulted although geographically, the two physical entities overlap spatially," he said.

"Biden may seek to reassure ASEAN that there was no intended snub and that he hopes ASEAN will understand and endorse the move," Ali said of the possible approach of Biden.

Given that the US funds and provides technical assistance for many development projects in Southeast Asia, economic and other development issues would be expected to feature in the discussions, said Ali.

Ge Hongliang, deputy director at the China-ASEAN Research Center of Guangxi University for Nationalities, said ASEAN has taken centrality as an important principle to govern regional affairs and develop global ties. That means that the members of the bloc are not likely to become chess pieces for major-power rivalry, and the Biden administration would unlikely succeed in ushering in a US-ASEAN "honeymoon" period at the summit, the scholar said.

He said the Biden administration nominally aims to promote multilateralism and cooperation between the US and countries in the region, but instead it is promoting a regional imbalance with its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy with exclusive groupings such as AUKUS and the Quad-the latter being a US partnership with Japan, India and Australia. Such moves put more pressure on ASEAN countries even though they don't want to take sides in the competition among the major countries, Ge said.

Yuan Zheng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the US characterizes China as having the same position as Russia, and so seeks to contain both countries on the pretext of the Ukraine crisis.

As the US' NATO allies have recently increased their defense budgets and shouldered more responsibility for the security of Europe, it is not surprising that the US, as a hegemonic power, will turn more of its attention toward the Asia-Pacific region and make the situation there more complicated, he said.

He said that China and the ASEAN countries have enjoyed rapid growth in economic and trade cooperation over the past few decades.

"ASEAN countries would not want to take sides or see a head-on collision between major powers, which is not in the interest of ASEAN countries as well as the Asia-Pacific region," he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday said the Asia-Pacific region is a promising land for cooperation and development, not a chessboard for major-power rivalry.

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