US eyes China containment at upcoming ASEAN summit, but regional countries want to stay away from US-China rivalry: experts

By Chen Qingqing and Xu Yelu (Global Times) 08:42, May 12, 2022

As leaders from Southeast Asian countries arrived in Washington on Wednesday ahead of the US-ASEAN summit, they are scheduled to meet US officials and business leaders on Thursday ahead of the meeting with US President Joe Biden, during which the Ukraine crisis, Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the influence of China are expected to be in focus.

It will be the second special summit between the US and ASEAN countries since 2016. While the US shows palpable attention to increase its influence in the region and pressure some countries to "pick a side" amid the US-China rivalry, experts believe that it's up to how much the US will value the interests of the ASEAN countries rather than its own interests.

Given a long-term practice of balancing between major powers, ASEAN countries are unlikely to cooperate with the US in its geopolitical purpose of decoupling from China in the region, some experts said.

Officials including Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysia Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh arrived in the US ahead of a two-day summit, according to media reports. However, no individual meetings were planned between the regions' leaders and Biden, Kao Kim Hourn, a minister and close adviser to Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, was quoted as saying in a Reuters report recently.

Although the US claims to build an open Indo-Pacific region, its real goal is to contain China, said Li Kaisheng, research fellow and deputy director at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

"Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the US decided to hold such a meeting to show that its strategic priorities toward China have not changed," Li told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Some US media forecast that the Ukraine crisis, trade relations, regional security and the influence of China will top the agenda of the summit, and some expect more detailed content on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which was announced as part of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy in February, to be elaborated at the summit.

The US vowed to develop new approaches to trade "that meet high labor and environmental standards" and develop a digital economy framework, promote free, fair and open investment through the region and close the region's infrastructure gap, according to the IPEF on the website of the White House. 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 appeared to welcome Biden administration's "coming back" strategy toward the region. For example, Malaysia already signed cooperation deals with the US in areas like chipsets, Ge Hongliang, director of the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

"In the era of competition between major powers, when ASEAN countries adhere to ASEAN centrality, they would become much more reluctant to pick a side if the rivalry of major powers intensifies in the region," Ge said.

However, experts raised doubts about how much US proposals for ASEAN could become a reality, especially when China has already leaped over the US in terms of trade and economic engagement in Southeast Asia.

Just like the US 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 environment standards. "But could they meet the needs of Southeast Asian countries?" asked Li.

"For ASEAN countries, the bigger market is still China. They are not willing to build a supply chain completely decoupled from China and are more likely to adopt a position of hedging their bets," he said.

ASEAN remains China's largest trade partner, accounting for 14.6 percent of China's total foreign trade in the first four months of 2022, with the EU and the US ranking second and third, according to the latest Chinese customs data released on Monday.

China-ASEAN trade totaled 1.84 trillion yuan ($274.5 billion) from January to April 2022 up 7.2 percent year-on-year.

In terms of IPEF, experts said it's still uncertain how much ASEAN countries will be willing to cooperate with the US including how much their losses are if they decouple from China under such a framework.

Besides the economic and trade cooperation plan, US media like the Voice of America said that the US is likely to condemn China's growing military presence in the region especially in the South China Sea, as some ASEAN members share such concerns.

A recent surveyjointly conducted by the Global Times Research Center and Center for Chinese Foreign Strategy Studies, Renmin University of China showed that nearly 80 percent of the public surveyed said that the US is the biggest disruptor of the development of China-ASEAN relations.

From the Obama administration's pivot to Asia to the Biden administration's "Indo-Pacific Strategy," it's obvious that the US has been lobbying around ASEAN and trying to integrate it to its anti-China alliance, some experts said. However, the survey shows that 94.2 percent of the respondents hold a positive attitude toward the two sides handling the South China Sea question well.

"ASEAN members do not want to get involved in the conflict between China and the US, as they don't want to become the battlefield of great power competition. They doubt whether the US respects their interests enough," Li said.

(Web editor: Zhong Wenxing, Liang Jun)


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