ASEAN welcomes cooperation with the United States but asks Washington to respect the regional architecture — BenarNews

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations welcomes the role of the United States as an important partner, but Washington should respect the existing regional architecture.

Lim Jock Hoi, a Bruneian who is the bloc’s current secretary general, delivered the message during an appearance at a think tank in Washington this week, as ASEAN and the United States marked the 45th anniversary of their relationship while seeking to uplift it. .

While the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia is significant, it “should complement the existing regional architecture that is open and inclusive,” Lim said during an event and webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as part of its ASEAN Leadership Forum.

“Peace and stability have always been a primary concern of ASEAN since its establishment in 1967,” Lim told the forum on Monday.

US-led initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) could provide opportunities for ASEAN countries, he said, but they “must be in line with ASEAN’s outlook”. . [on the] Indo-Pacific.

“We emphasize, among others, the centrality, openness, transparency, inclusiveness of ASEAN, ensuring that all relevant stakeholders in the region are included,” Lim said.

Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), attends a meeting on climate action, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure with US Vice President Kamala Harris , U.S. cabinet members and ASEAN leaders at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, in Washington, May 13, 2022. [Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz]

In May, the Biden administration announced the launch of IPEF which includes 13 nations but not China. Beijing criticized the framework as a US tool “to coerce countries in the region”.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the largest source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN and the bloc’s second-largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $364 billion last year.

China has remained ASEAN’s top trading partner for 13 consecutive years, according to the Chinese Government Information Office. Trade between China and ASEAN reached $544.9 billion in the first seven months of this year.

“We see that both are important for ASEAN. We hope the two major powers will talk constructively to make the region more conducive to trade and investment and create opportunities for all of us,” said Lim.

ASEAN neutrality

So far ASEAN leaders have been careful not to take sides in the US-China rivalry in their backyard, said Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister of Thailand who has been active in circles ASEAN policies.

“ASEAN should continue to maintain dialogue partnerships with both, reflecting that ASEAN is friendly and cooperative with all,” he said.

ASEAN and US officials are working to establish a so-called comprehensive strategic partnership later this year. It’s unclear how far the new form of partnership will go, but the US “needs to think more and do more” in terms of working with ASEAN, according to Kasit Piromya.

“I don’t think US-ASEAN relations have matured because there is no common basis or foundation as such, unlike US relations with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan which are based on democracy,” he said.

“There doesn’t seem to be any real focus and enthusiasm on the part of the United States to really forge a more intensive and solid relationship with ASEAN despite the Indo-Pacific strategy and the IPEF,” the official said. former senior Thai diplomat.

Critics say ASEAN’s centrality has been overlooked and bypassed when the US has put more effort into other regional groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, which also includes the Australia, India and Japan.

ASEAN was also not alerted or informed in advance of the establishment of AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

These Indo-Pacific security groupings are widely seen as thwarting China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region.

“The United States has not fully utilized the inherent beliefs and desires of many ASEAN member states for its continued presence in the region,” Kasit said, adding, “Washington cannot fail to realize that all countries in the region are afraid of China.”

South China Sea disputes

The United States has provided more than $12.1 billion in development, economic, health and security assistance to Southeast Asian allies and partners since 2002, according to a report. information from the US State Department.

“The United States supports the rules-based international order in the South China Sea, and in close cooperation with our allies and partners, the United States promotes a free and open Indo-Pacific in which the freedoms of navigation and overview are appreciated and respected. by all States in accordance with international law,” reads the fact sheet.

China and several ASEAN member states have conflicting claims to parts of the South China Sea, but Beijing’s claims are the most extensive, up to 90% of the sea.

US-ships.jpeg
Ships from the United States Navy’s Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group conduct operations in the South China Sea on October 6, 2019. [U.S. Navy]

There was only a brief reference to the South China Sea disputes in the ASEAN Secretary General’s speech to CSIS on Monday, when Lim Jock Hoi cited maritime security as one of the challenges facing the region. confronted “for the longest time”.

“Efforts to conclude the South China Sea Code of Conduct, one [that] is mutually acceptable to all parties involved, [have] effectively and systematically prosecuted,” Lim said without mentioning the United States.

Some analysts believe policy differences among ASEAN members in dealing with South China Sea issues have led to a divisive approach to the role the United States might play.

The U.S. Navy and maritime forces of the 10 ASEAN countries held the first ASEAN-U.S. maritime exercise in Thailand in 2019, but the drills have not been held again.

China has warned against what it sees as “interference by outside actors” in disputes in the South China Sea.

“At times, the United States has come across as a little too eager to help, prompting some requesters to fear that it could inadvertently trigger an escalation of tensions or an unwanted incident in the South China Sea that the countries of Southeast Asia will have to bear the brunt of it,” said Elina Noor, director of political and security affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington.

Noor said the US side could try “to have more effective communication and coordination with Southeast Asian partners so that their presence and shows of force do not trigger misunderstandings.”

And, according to Nguyen The Phuong, a Vietnamese defense analyst, “ASEAN has no common foreign policy goals, so member states have a say in maritime cooperation.”

“Some want more cooperation [with the U.S.]some want less,” he said.

“There are also views that countries that wish to cooperate more with the United States in the field of maritime security could create a smaller group, unofficial of course, within ASEAN to strengthen their cooperation,” he added.

In May, US President Joe Biden announced a new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) that would provide greater access to maritime domain awareness from space for countries in the region.

“It’s new, but a growing area of ​​cooperation,” the Vietnamese analyst said.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews, produced this report.

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