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Analysts: Washington falls short in altering bloc's stance

By PRIME SARMIENTO in Hong Kong | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-05-16 09:51

US President Joe Biden poses for a group photograph with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a special US-ASEAN summit at the White House in Washington, May 12, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations' long-held adherence to the policy of non-alignment and neutrality in international relations is unlikely to change, analysts say, commenting on a special summit between the United States and the ASEAN.

The two-day summit in Washington ended on Friday with the two sides committing to establish an ASEAN-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is "meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial" to the 10th ASEAN-US Summit in November. This is also in line with the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-US Dialogue Relations.

US President Joe Biden pledged $150 million to finance various programs in the region.

The summit served as "a venue for improved ties and cooperation "between ASEAN and the US, said Michael Ricafort, chief economist at the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp in Manila.

It is "normal for ASEAN to have various arrangements to improve trade, investments (and) security", in the region, Ricafort said, noting that this will in no way affect ASEAN's stance on non-alignment.

The ASEAN-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is just the latest of several international agreements that ASEAN has signed to support regional economy and security. Last year it committed to a strategic partnership with Australia and China.

'Centrality, non-alignment'

"ASEAN centrality and nonalignment would pretty much remain the same (even after the ASEAN-US summit)," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. ASEAN will continue to rely on both the US and China for security and economic concerns, Oh said.

He cited some programs that will be launched after the summit. In terms of maritime collaboration, he said he does not see the US making commitments or investing substantial resources in the region. The educational collaboration will just expand existing US-ASEAN exchange programs, he said.

"You do not see a lot of new US investment or trade initiatives to have with ASEAN primarily because… the US doesn't have a lot of state-owned companies so (the US government) could not mobilize these state-owned companies to make those investments. (It would) depend on the private enterprise whether it finds ASEAN to be an attractive location."

Against the $40 billion in aid that the US Congress has approved for Ukraine, the $150 million Biden promised for ASEAN is minuscule. However, Southeast Asia is one of the world's fastest growing regional economies and as such the US sees no need to commit more resources to it, Oh said. "You might say (ASEAN) is a victim of its own success."

In a media briefing on April 16, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the holding of the special summit, noting that the event will demonstrate the US' "enduring commitment to ASEAN, recognizing its central role in delivering sustainable solutions to the region's most pressing challenges".

Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said the summit may be one way for the Biden administration to drum up support for the Indo-Pacific Outlook. However, in dealing with ASEAN, one should also look closely at how each member country deals with either the US or China, she said.

Filomeno Sta. Ana III, coordinator of the Manila think tank Action for Economic Reforms, said ASEAN's view of non-alignment is "notional", and any position of ASEAN with regard to the US and China will be based on "regional interest", which "represents the various national interests" of ASEAN members.

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