SINGAPORE -- After U.S. President Joe Biden's inauguration, hopes in Southeast Asia for better diplomatic relations with Washington have risen, especially against the backdrop of China's aggressive 'vaccine diplomacy' meant to win the region's hearts and minds.
In a statement released on Thursday by Brunei, this year's chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, foreign ministers in the region noted: "We look forward to working with the new administration to further strengthen the strategic partnership between ASEAN and the U.S. for the region's peace, security, stability and prosperity."
ASEAN ministers held an online meeting on the same day, the first major gathering of the 10-member bloc this year.
The bloc has been conducting equidistant diplomacy with the U.S. and China. It has high expectations for U.S. engagement in the region after former President Donald Trump had mostly disregarded the bloc. Trump even skipped the East Asia Summit -- a key annual meeting of 18 Asia Pacific nations hosted by ASEAN -- for four consecutive years.
Thursday's statement noted that ministers "looked forward to the next meeting between ASEAN and U.S. leaders," expressing hope that President Biden would attend ASEAN-related conferences. "We further looked forward to our cooperation in promoting and strengthening multilateralism and international cooperation, to accelerate global economic recovery and to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic."
The ASEAN foreign ministers meeting comes as China seeks to strengthen ties with ASEAN nations. Earlier this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Wang visited other ASEAN countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, last October.
"China will work with ASEAN countries and make greater contributions to upholding multilateralism, advancing free trade and safeguarding regional stability," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a news conference before Wang's trip this month.
Throughout the trips, China has been promoting its domestic coronavirus vaccines, dubbed by others as 'coronavirus vaccine diplomacy.' In the Philippines, Wang said China would donate 500,000 doses to the country. Other ASEAN countries are expected to procure coronavirus vaccines from China.
China, backed by a steady domestic economic rebound from the pandemic -- gross domestic product for the October-December quarter rose 6.5% from a year earlier -- is expected to step up economic and political activities overseas.
One key geopolitical issue for ASEAN is the South China Sea. The foreign ministers' statement noted that "concerns were expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region." The statement did not name China.
The wording mirrors the joint statement of ASEAN foreign ministers in September 2020, meaning the bloc has not changed its stance despite having a new chair. Last year's chair Vietnam has kept its distance from China, sparking concerns that the succession to smaller Brunei would strengthen China's influence.
"Brunei will be a fair chairman as it is an experienced chair. Brunei is not going to be biased either for or against China," said Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, Biden will create a new post of Indo-Pacific Coordinator and appoint former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell to increase engagement in Asia. The focus will be on whether Biden himself will attend ASEAN-related meetings and distinguish himself from his predecessor.
"I expect the U.S. to up the engagement by end 2021," said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, referring to when the annual East Asia Summit is held.