President Biden skipping the East Asia Summit in Jakarta bodes ill for both the optics of the decision and the implications on U.S. engagement in ASEAN, especially as China continues to expand influence and cultivate relations in the region.
In the 1980s political satire Yes Prime Minister, the British Prime Minister is asked how much time he would want to allocate to meet the New Zealand High Commissioner. His mind occupied thinking of something else, he mumbles, “72 hours.” His principal private secretary said — quite correctly — that this was “a bit generous”.
Diplomats in ASEAN and Indonesia, the grouping’s 2023 chair, must be feeling like the fictional Kiwi ambassador, now that it has been confirmed that U.S. President Joe Biden will miss the East Asia Summit in Jakarta next month. He is dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris in his place and will travel instead to the G20 meetings in New Delhi and onward to Hanoi.
American officials are quick to defend the decision, saying that U.S. policies towards Southeast Asia are constant and on an upward trajectory. This is true, to an extent. At a time of greater Sino-U.S. friction and the two powers’ corresponding bids to woo and influence Southeast Asian countries, however, Biden brushing off Indonesia, the host of the ASEAN-related Summits, speaks volumes.
Granted, one can see the logic behind the decision. In American eyes, India — and its participation in the four-member Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — is key to managing the challenges posed by China. This is so much so that India’s perceived transgressions — not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reselling Russian gas, and aligning with China and Russia in the BRICS — have been overlooked.
Like India, Vietnam also stands on the frontlines in the U.S.-led bid to counter China along its periphery. And compared to other Southeast Asian countries that are inclined towards the U.S., such as Singapore and the Philippines, there is more upside in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Biden will be rewarded with an upgrade of Washington’s relationship with Vietnam to a strategic partnership in Hanoi.
The case for Biden skipping ASEAN-related summits in Jakarta falls apart if one examines the optics and underlying concerns in Southeast Asia about U.S. engagement in the region.
Giving Indonesia a miss is a bad idea. This year, Indonesia is the ASEAN Chair and incidentally the grouping’s country coordinator of ASEAN-U.S. relations. Indonesia had adjusted ASEAN’s calendar to take advantage of Biden’s travel to India in order to secure his attendance at the East Asia Summit.
Skipping out on a trip to Jakarta is a signal to outgoing President Jokowi that Indonesia is simply not on the Administration’s radar. But it should be. When forced to choose, more Indonesians deem that ASEAN should choose China rather than the United States. In the State of Southeast Asia Survey 2023, the percentage of Indonesians choosing the U.S. has fallen from 64.3 per cent in 2021 to 46.3 per cent in 2023. In the same period, the corresponding figure for those choosing China has risen from 35.7 per cent to 53.7 per cent.
“Biden’s attendance at ASEAN summits is not everything, but it is important,” said a senior Indonesia academic at a Jakarta conference recently. This is where Biden’s predecessor, Obama, excelled at pressing the flesh and kissing babies — for strategic reasons. When he visited Jakarta in 2010, university students lined the streets to greet him. To this day, the Indonesian capital has a “nasi goreng gila Obama” (Obama crazy fried rice) eatery opposite the elementary school that the president attended as a child.
Obama had shown seriousness towards ASEAN by signing on to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2009. He ended his term hosting the special U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands in 2016 — a high point in U.S.-ASEAN relations. He met all 10 ASEAN leaders in his first year and a total of six times across his two terms, and travelled to the region seven times separately (more than twice that of any sitting U.S. president). He only missed the East Asia Summit once in 2013 during a government shutdown. This was truly demonstrative of Washington’s “tilt” to Asia and the Pacific, more than any strategy or document can put into words.
Washington should be mindful that the Sino-U.S. race to win friends and influence people in Southeast Asia is dynamic.
Biden’s achievements on this score are fewer. He hosted the second special US-ASEAN Summit last year in Washington DC where he met nine of the ASEAN leaders and then went on to elevate relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership at the end of last year. He attended the East Asia Summit in 2021 (virtually) and 2022, but has scarcely visited the region.
There are also deeper issues. Privately, American diplomats grumble that ASEAN countries are too amicable towards China and that the grouping’s processes are tardy and chock-full of ASEAN-esque gobbledygook. Cynics also note that external powers such as the U.S. (and China, France and the United Kingdom) mouth the shibboleths of ASEAN centrality to get a “free pass” into the club, after which they bob and weave and do their own thing. The U.S.’ much-touted mini-laterals — the Quad, the AUKUS, and more recently, the Japan-Korea-U.S. trilateral — are notable examples.
Given China’s deep economic links with the region, the U.S. also has much catching up to do after its withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is Washington’s next-best option for regional states, but it is still a work in progress. A recently released report by the U.S.-based Asia Society argued that Washington needs to up its economic game by considering a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement.
Granted, these are issues that a Biden visit to Jakarta will not resolve. Washington, however, should be mindful that the Sino-U.S. race to win friends and influence people in Southeast Asia is dynamic. Posture may not make policy but meeting in-person is nonetheless important and appreciated. Xi Jinping, for example, launched a charm offensive towards the region earlier this year, which was received largely positively.
In the end, perceptions and optics matter. It is said that relationships need constant gardening. In this case, Biden’s decision to brush off Jakarta is tantamount to Washington taking gardening leave on the U.S.-ASEAN relationship.
William Choong is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.