Editorial (The Jakarta Post)
Thursday, April 21, 2022
With the group of the 20 Summit in mind, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is scheduled to travel to the United States to attend the special United States-ASEAN Summit on 12-13. May in the White House along with other ASEAN leaders.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its ambition to multilaterally restrict China will be at the top of President Joe Biden’s agenda as host. ASEAN leaders want to do their best to please Washington, but at the same time they do not want to annoy Beijing, their main trading partner.
President Jokowi has an additional mission in Washington, DC. Hosting the G20 summit in Bali in November will cover his diplomatic achievements since coming to power in 2014. But the Russian invasion could be devastating to the prospects for the summit because Biden and US allies such as Canada, Britain and Australia have threatened to boycott the Bali summit if Indonesia does not invite Ukraine. Initially, they demanded Putin’s absence.
Jokowi has to persuade Biden to allow the warring parties to find a win-win solution before the summit begins.
ASEAN members are more economically dependent on China than the United States, although the latter remains one of the main export destinations for ASEAN. Militarily, the regional grouping also needs the strong presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea, where China claims sovereignty over almost the entire maritime area.
The summit was originally scheduled for 28-29. March, which coincided with the 45th the anniversary of the relationship between the two partners. The event was rescheduled because some ASEAN leaders were not available on that date and the world was preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The postponement itself was a clear indication that ASEAN is now less dependent on Washington than it was a few decades ago.
“It is a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration to act as a strong, reliable partner in Southeast Asia. Our common hopes for the region will continue to support our common commitment to promote an Indo-Pacific, free and open, secure , connected and resilient, said Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Saturday.
Biden will pressure its guests to condemn or repeat their condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. But the real priority will be the China issue. ASEAN leaders certainly do not want to be perceived as American allies in the midst of rivalry between the United States and China. Economically, China is crucial, not only for ASEAN, but for almost the entire world. The United States remains the world’s largest economy, but its dominance has been taken over by China.
However, relations between ASEAN and China have been haunted by Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. The high seas are also partially claimed by ASEAN members – Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. Indonesia is not involved in a territorial dispute with China, but the Asian giant has included the Natuna waters on its centuries-old map as its traditional fishing ground.
The Washington Summit will benefit both ASEAN and the United States. Especially for Jokowi, his success in maintaining Biden’s patience with the issue of the Ukrainian war and persuading him to attend the Bali G20 summit will be crucial.
China will certainly follow the summit closely.