The U.S. has demonstrated its will to counter China’s influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the Biden administration's foreign policy toward countries in the bloc starts to take shape. The Trump administration paid little attention to the region, allowing China to woo its neighbors there with economic support. If Washington wishes to restore its clout in Asia, winning back credibility within ASEAN is essential.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held his first online foreign ministers' meeting with his ASEAN counterparts on July 14. On July 16, President Joe Biden attended an informal online leaders' summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which consists of 21 countries and regions.
They adopted a tough stance toward China. Blinken said the U.S. rejects China's illegal maritime claims in the South China Sea. Biden avoided naming specific countries, but he stressed U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific region through infrastructure investment and measures to fight the new coronavirus, a clear push at checking China.
During his four years in office, former President Donald Trump did not attend any meetings of the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit, which also includes Japan, the U.S., China, India and others. This caused Asian countries to be skeptical of Washington's commitment to the region. During that time China steadily strengthened its influence in Asia through infrastructure support in its Belt and Road Initiative, and through its mask and vaccine diplomacy aimed at helping other countries fight the new coronavirus.
Since its inauguration in January, the Biden administration has emphasized the importance of Asia. But it has prioritized Japan and South Korea, putting ASEAN on the back burner. Immediately after Blinken postponed the online meeting with the ASEAN foreign ministers in late May because of connection issues, China held an in-person meeting with them in early June. There is no denying the sense that the U.S. is late getting out of the gate.
The U.S. has made the Quad, a framework for cooperation with Japan, Australia and India, a centerpiece of its Asia policy. To make the de facto encirclement of China more effective, Washington must gain the cooperation of the ASEAN countries, the geographic center of the Indo-Pacific region.
While ASEAN is concerned about its growing dependence on China, it also has a deep-seated sense of caution about the Biden administration's focus on human rights diplomacy. Japan has close ties to both the U.S. and ASEAN and should therefore act as a bridge between the two.