Thu, 01 Jun 2023

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a summit in Washington this week, in a move widely seen as an attempt by the United States to pull members of the bloc into its camp.

Analysts believe that U.S. attempts to court support among ASEAN leaders in pursuit of its geopolitical interests are unlikely to gain traction.

ASEAN leaders are more likely to emphasize their economic interests, analysts have said, adding the bloc members, who are seeking a post-pandemic economic recovery, will put ASEAN centrality at the forefront while deflecting any attempt to draw them into a U.S. sphere of influence.

The summit officially commemorates 45 years of U.S.-ASEAN ties. It was initially scheduled for late March but was postponed due to scheduling issues.

Azmi Hassan, a senior research fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, said Wednesday that the United States has been unable to exert pressure on ASEAN over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, with most of the 10-member bloc abstaining from voting in favor of a resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last month.

"I think President Biden must be wondering why ASEAN nation did not outright condemn Russia and did not support it wholeheartedly. This can especially be seen during the resolution to remove Russia from the UNHRC on April 7: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Brunei abstained while Vietnam and Laos voted against it," Hassan told Xinhua in a phone interview.

He also said that the United States will find itself unable to make any headway among ASEAN members, especially after Malaysia and Indonesia voiced concerns over the AUKUS trilateral security partnership involving Australia and Britain.

"Overall, despite the ideas of geopolitical maneuvering, I think the most important issue that will be discussed among the participants will be the economic side, how to spur the trade between ASEAN and the U.S. post-pandemic. I think that will be the most important subject matter from ASEAN point of view," he said.

Lee Pei May, a political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia, said that while the summit is happening against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the primary concern of the Biden administration is not about Russia but more about ensuring a so-called "free and open" Indo-Pacific.

"For the Biden administration to advance this vision, they have to get ASEAN countries on the American side and potentially for the U.S. to play a role in managing the disputes in the South China Sea. Such moves can be interpreted as challenging China's position in the region and hindering peaceful progress between China and ASEAN countries," she said.

"ASEAN members can already anticipate that the summit is ideal for the Biden administration to stress the common interests and shared values between the U.S. and the ASEAN countries. The U.S. is expected to leverage these ideas to draw ASEAN closer to them," she added.

Lee cautioned that unless it can demonstrate unity, the ASEAN bloc may find itself in a position where different members pursue different paths, which could compromise its cohesiveness. This can be remedied by member states forging a consensus when dealing with the United States.

"Having a consensus on key issues is not easy, but it is crucial as it would allow the members to speak with one united voice at the summit," Lee said. "The members can send a signal to the U.S. that ASEAN would remain neutral in whatever circumstances."

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