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ASEAN countries want balance while the US is dividing Asia

Updated:2022-05-16 11:52:28   China Daily

The US-ASEAN Special Summit is held at Washington on May 12-13. [Photo/Agencies]

The member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, want to find a balance point between Washington and Beijing to pursue development, while the US is drawing a dividing line, according to some US experts when talking about the US-ASEAN Special Summit at Washington on May 12-13.

Jack Midgley, the principal of global consultancy Midgley & Co and an adjunct associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown, said that what the ASEAN countries are signaling is that they want balance. He said that the summit "is very much about the geopolitical competition" with China.

"In many ways, one of the hopeful things we're seeing here is that this competition is being framed as an economic competition," Jack Midgley told China Daily.

Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, also told China Daily that the ASEAN countries "would continue to find a balance point" between the US and China after this summit. He stated one of the US's goals is "set its own standards as an aggression," and "at the end of the day, it started drawing dividing lines in Asia".

"It is about development, and development is best done when it is not done in a zero-sum framework, when it is done in a win-win framework," He noted.

Gupta said that the US created an image of a new great power competition, which is not necessary.

"That great power competition does not have to arise. Both parties, both sides can work together to the bilateral benefit of themselves, as well as for the benefit of the region," said Gupta, "but if you are going to prosecute a great power competition, it is essential then that somebody be that adversary, and the US is trying to create an adversary out of China when there is not exactly a need or necessity to do so."

Gupta said he is "not comfortable" with the US's such action. "...but that is where US policy has gone from for some point of time, and it is this artificial construction of a great power competition in Asia which I find very disheartening."

"As we've seen, dividing lines in Europe have not ended well for Europe, and Beijing would not like this sort of dividing lines to be imported into Asia and then create some sort of tension," Gupta stressed.

According to the schedule released by the White House, ASEAN leaders met the leader of the US congress, met the senior American business leaders and CEOs, had dinner hosted by Biden, attended a working lunch at the State Department with Vice-President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and joined the event commemorating 45 years of relations between the US and ASEAN at the White house.

The tone toward China of this two-day summit and the remarks at it, in Midgley's view, were "moderate" as he expected, and "there's a lot of good reasons to take a moderate tone". "I think the American government is going to set a more balanced tone toward China, particularly with the conflict raging in Ukraine, with the current COVID issues that our Chinese friends are dealing with … and the issues around the supply chain. Our issues really can badly hurt the American economy, and they need to be managed on a bilateral basis between the US and Chinese sides. And so, I think there's a great opportunity now to take a more balanced tone, a little more moderate tone toward China," said Midgley.

On the tone of the summit, Gupta does not think it is a matter of it being tough or moderate with China.

"The aim of the United States as of late has been to pretend as if the Indo-Pacific can move forward peacefully and prosperously on a minus-China basis. This is an absurd proposition. But, to the extent that Washington keeps pushing this line to deepen relationships in Asia without overtly antagonizing or calling out China," he said, "I don't think it should bother Beijing. All economic roads to prosperity in Asia run through Beijing, after all. I expect the summit's tone to mostly stay clear of an explicit focus on China, even though China will be the metaphorical elephant in the room."

During the summit, Biden promised a new investment of $150 million in the region, including the deployment of a Coast Guard cutter, preparedness for the spread of diseases like COVID, and other efforts, most of which were described by some media as "aimed at countering the influence of rival China".

Midgley viewed the $150 million as "just a very small amount of money spread across a lot of different programs" - it is still about "balance".

"The American side wants to avoid opening-up U. S. markets too much to the ASEAN countries because the result would be a flood of low-cost goods, which would probably cost American jobs."

"And I think what you're seeing in the ASEAN pitch today is an attempt to strike the right balance," he added.

The Russian-Ukraine war accounts for one of the top issues on the topic list of the summit. Based on Midgley's analysis, it will not be easy for the Biden administration to fulfill its wish to make ASEAN countries side with the US on this issue.

Gupta said he does not think the US-ASEAN Summit is achieving the US' goal. He said, "there needs to be a hard deliverable coming out of the meeting." At this time, the primary expression coming out of the summit is that Washington hasn't forgotten about the Southeast Asian sub-region. Which is polite but completely insufficient.

Keywords:   ASEAN Asia Development