Logistics Hub Zhengzhou, Central China’s Henan Province, shipped its first international freight to Laos via the China-Laos Railway on March 15, 2022. The China-Laos Railway celebrated its 100th day of operation last week, after transporting more than 1.2 million tonnes of goods and injected new momentum into economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN. Photo: VCG
As leaders from Southeast Asian countries arrived in Washington on Wednesday ahead of the US-ASEAN summit, they are scheduled to meet with US officials and business leaders on Thursday ahead of the meeting with US President Joe Biden, where the Ukraine crisis, Indo-Pacific economic framework and China’s influence is expected to be in focus.
It will be the second special summit between the US and ASEAN countries since 2016. While the US is showing noticeable attention to increasing its influence in the region and pressuring some countries to “choose a side” in the midst of rivalry between the US and China, experts believe that it is up to how much the United States will value the interests of the ASEAN countries rather than their own interests.
Given a long-term practice of balancing superpowers, it is unlikely that ASEAN countries will cooperate with the United States in their geopolitical purpose of decoupling from China in the region, some experts said.
Officials including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh arrived in the United States ahead of a two-day summit, according to media reports. However, no individual meetings were planned between the leaders of the regions and Biden, Kao Kim Hourn, a minister and close adviser to Cambodia’s longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen, was quoted as saying in a recent Reuters report.
Although the United States claims to be building an open Indo-Pacific region, its real goal is to limit China, said Li Kaisheng, research fellow and deputy director of the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
“In light of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the United States decided to hold such a meeting to show that its strategic priorities vis-à-vis China have not changed,” Li told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Some US media predict that the Ukraine crisis, trade relations, regional security and China’s influence will be at the top of the agenda for the summit, and some expect more detailed content about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which was announced as part of the US Indo -Pacific strategy in February to be drawn up at the summit.
The United States promised to develop new approaches to trade “that meet high labor and environmental standards” and develop a digital economic framework, promote free, fair and open investment through the region and close the region’s infrastructure gap, according to IPEF on the White House website. The framework is also widely seen as US efforts to counter China’s influence in the region.
Compared to the Trump administration’s ASEAN policy, some Southeast Asian countries seemed to approve of the Biden administration’s strategy of “returning” to the region. For example, Malaysia has already signed cooperation agreements with the United States in areas such as chipsets, Ge Hongliang, director of the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
“In a time of competition between great powers, when the ASEAN countries stick to the ASEAN centrality, they would be much more reluctant to choose sides if the rivalry between the great powers intensifies in the region,” Ge said.
However, experts questioned how much US proposals for ASEAN could become a reality, especially when China has already skipped the US in terms of trade and economic engagement in Southeast Asia.
Just as the United States promoted the Blue Dot Network project and the B3W project, it proposes the framework based on its own strengths by emphasizing the standard, such as the quality of infrastructure, labor, and environmental standards. “But could they meet the needs of the Southeast Asian countries?” Li asked.
“For the ASEAN countries, the largest market is still China. They are not willing to build a supply chain completely disconnected from China and are more likely to take a stand to hedge their efforts,” he said.
ASEAN remains China’s largest trading partner, accounting for 14.6 percent of China’s total foreign trade in the first four months of 2022, with the EU and US in second and third place, according to the latest Chinese customs data released on Monday.
Trade between China and ASEAN totaled 1.84 trillion yuan ($ 274.5 billion) from January to April 2022, an increase of 7.2 percent over the previous year.
With regard to IPEF, experts said it is still uncertain how much the ASEAN countries will be willing to cooperate with the US, including how large their losses are if they are decoupled from China under such a framework.
In addition to the plan for economic and trade cooperation, US media outlets such as the Voice of America said the United States is likely to condemn China’s growing military presence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, as some ASEAN members share such concerns.
A recent study jointly conducted by the Global Times Research Center and the Center for Chinese Foreign Strategy Studies, Renmin University of China showed that nearly 80 percent of the public surveyed said the United States is the biggest disruption to the development of China-ASEAN relations.
From the Obama administration’s focal point to Asia to the Biden administration’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”, it is obvious that the United States has lobbied around ASEAN and tried to integrate it into its anti-China alliance, some experts said. However, the survey shows that 94.2 percent of the respondents have a positive attitude towards the two sides that handle the issue of the South China Sea well.
“ASEAN members do not want to be involved in the conflict between China and the United States, as they do not want to become the battleground for superpower competition. They doubt whether the United States respects their interests enough,” Li said.