Talking ASEAN Webinar on 'Joe Biden's One-Year Presidency and ASEAN-US Special Summit: How would it be Beneficial to ASEAN?' which was held on Tuesday, 31 May 2022 in The Habibie Center Youtube Channel was covered by The Jakarta Post Post's article on "Sincerity of US 'vision' for ASEAN put to test" Read below for the full article:

Sincerity of US 'vision' for ASEAN put to test

Amid China's exceptional sway in Southeast Asia, the United States seeks to reaffirm its previous advances during the ASEAN-US Special Summit earlier this month, which were aimed to rekindle its once-neglected ASEAN ties whilst celebrating 45 years of the engagement.

In a webinar on Tuesday hosted by The Habibie Center, ASEAN analysts and Steve Weston, the charge d'affaires for the US Mission to ASEAN, dissected the first-year gains and second-year challenges for US President Joe Biden, especially in terms of Southeast Asia engagement.

Weston reaffirmed the US commitment to the ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership through the five-year plan issued in 2021 to promote cooperation between the partners through existing ASEAN-led mechanisms. The plan encompasses maritime cooperation, connectivity, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 and "economic and other possible areas of cooperation to contribute to peace, prosperity and development in the region".

Joanne Lin Weiling, lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, noted during her presentation that the Biden administration had seen a vast increase in engagements with ASEAN, pointing to, among many efforts, Biden's nomination of Yohannes Abraham as the next US ambassador to ASEAN, a consular position that had been vacant for five years throughout the Donald Trump administration.

The expert also touched on key breakdowns of the US$150 million budget allocated for the region, saying that it indicated a clear message that Washington's ASEAN engagement had been primarily motivated by an aspiration to counter China - specifically the $40 million allocated for sustainable infrastructure and another $60 million on maritime security.

"That sort of priority seems to point in one direction, which is to counter China's maritime [expansion] in the South China Sea, and of course the Belt and Road Initiative. So that is why the US has also announced its intention to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership status with ASEAN to be on par with China," said Weiling during the webinar, while noting that she perceived the White House to have been quite transparent on this fact.

A similar inference was made by Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a research director at The Habibie Center.

While he did not refute the experts' statements on the matter, Weston emphasized that US engagement with ASEAN went a long way back and that viewing it only through the Chinese-related context may be a misstep.

"I know [the relationship] is often put in the context of the trend in US rivalry, but let us look at our engagement with ASEAN. I would just say that our relationship with ASEAN is long-standing, important and it is definitely true that we are looking to see where we can do more," said the interim envoy, quoting statistics on some of the monetary aid given by the US to ASEAN historically.

Weston also said the recent reinvigoration of US-ASEAN relations had brought new promising programs and initiatives, and that the US was eager to have deeper and broader engagement with the region. Dewi echoed the sentiment, stating that recent agreements would be beneficial on both normative and practical levels, as well as promoting ASEAN's centrality as the region's primary convener.

She also noted that US engagement would balance China's overwhelming role in the area, which was much needed.

"If you ask which country is most influential to your country politically? Now the answer is China. Which country is most important economically? China. Which country are you most worried about economically? Politically? Precisely, China," Dewi said.

But despite the US' apparent ardor to revive its relationship with the region, some ASEAN analysts are still probing the longevity of this attention. After minimal engagement under Trump, ASEAN had turned to China, making Beijing an indispensable trading partner to the region. A US comeback in the region has thus been met with some distrust about the potential for yet another abandonment in the future.

"There is always this doubt, this question mark about how reliable this is in the long term. Even if you have committed yourself to an agreement, you can walk away from that restriction. That is a major worry," said Dewi.

She also emphasized that a true diplomatic alliance must not be so fickle in the face of domestic or international political processes, referencing the Trump presidency and the US-China rivalry. She warned against the US' tendency to cozy up to certain regions only when it was convenient.

"Quite often, [diplomatic] intentions are inconsistent because they are derivative of policies elsewhere in the US channel. I think that is probably a fact of life. But at the same time, relationships cannot be handled in an on-and-off [manner]," Dewi said.

"You do not just come to your friends when you need them," she continued.

This article was first published in The Jakarta Post on 2 June 2022 and can be found at:

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