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17 May 2022, Gateway House

Is the U.S. central or peripheral to ASEAN?

The recently concluded ASEAN-U.S. Summit has raised the bilateral cooperation to a strategic comprehensive partnership. Key areas of cooperation were identified and global health, SDGs, maritime security and connectivity, and the Ukrainian war dominated the dialogue. The meeting is significant in light of the May 24 Quad Summit, where it is important for the US to have its engagement with ASEAN visible.

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To mark the 45th anniversary of their dialogue relations, ASEAN and the United States convened a special summit on 12-13 May 2022, in Washington DC. This is the second time such a special summit has been convened since 2016, and the first physical engagement for ASEAN and U.S. leaders since 2017. President Donald Trump did not attend some of the meetings with ASEAN. And then the pandemic set in.

The focus of this ASEAN-U.S. leaders meeting was to discuss the methodology for deeper cooperation in a variety of sectors.[1] These included global health security, particularly the response to COVID-19, climate change, Sustainable Development Goals, maritime cooperation, human capacity-building, education and deepening economic and People to People engagement. Leaders also exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest: the Russia-Ukraine crisis[2] and Chinese activities in the South China Sea.[3]

The joint vision statement[4] is not long by ASEAN standards, at 28 paragraphs, and shorter than the usual ASEAN summit statements. The ASEAN chair Cambodia described the summit as ‘historic’[5] and the joint statement called the ASEAN-U.S. cooperation ‘indispensable.’ Significantly, the statement emphasised the importance of adhering to the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea (to which the US is not a signatory) and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).[6] Between the AOIP and the U.S. IP strategy, it finds relevant commonality in principles.

The ASEAN-U.S. relationship is now raised to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This is the new language that ASEAN has found to take strategic partnerships with important partners like China and India, ahead. Processes for this will be undertaken soon.

It’s not all rosy. The U.S. wanted to discuss Ukraine, on which ASEAN is not united.[7] On the United Nations General Assembly Resolution expelling Russia from the Human Rights Council, ASEAN voted separately. Vietnam and Laos voted against while Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia abstained. The Philippines and Myanmar voted for and were the two countries not attending the US-ASEAN Special Summit. The Philippines was in the midst of an election; Myanmar is suspended by ASEAN.

In the joint statement, ASEAN agreed with the U.S. regarding Ukraine to the extent that the efforts of the UN Secretary General for a peaceful solution must be supported and humanitarian assistance provided. In seeming accordance with ASEAN views, there was no specific reference to Russia.

The US was keen to have ASEAN support to exclude Russia from the G20 Summit in Indonesia later this year. Indonesia stood its ground that Russia not be ignored. To mollify the U.S., Indonesia invited the Ukrainian president to the G20 as a guest.[8] ASEAN countries individually may have divergent views on Ukraine, but it is clear that as a group they cannot be stoked by the U.S. to ignore their other partners. If Russia is excluded from the G20, then the U.S. will push to exclude it from the APEC summit in Thailand as well. And that may bring the credibility of the East Asia Summit into question too.

ASEAN emphasised the upholding of ASEAN centrality and unity through the various ASEAN-led mechanisms in which the U.S. participates. This includes the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum[9] and ASEAN plus one annual summits. In that sense, a major goal to foster mutual trust and confidence so that peace and stability in the region can be maintained was achieved by the Washington Summit.

ASEAN and the U.S. approached the summit with different ideas. ASEAN wants a clear sense of U.S. commitment to its centrality and partnership. That’s because while some members are apprehensive about China strategically, economically ASEAN is dependent on China and the U.S. plays no role in its calculations.

On Myanmar, activists were disappointed that their efforts on the five-point consensus were blocked by Myanmar and that the chair Cambodia did not change that.[10] The cleavage among ASEAN countries on Myanmar remains but they don’t want outside powers to influence them[11]; preferring support for their continuing efforts. There are voices within ASEAN pushing to address all parties’ activists directly since the Myanmar regime is blocking the ASEAN special envoy from engaging with political parties. It appears that the U.S. is ready to support such efforts for ‘full access to all parties concerned’.

From the U.S. side, there will be a sense of relief that after several missteps, this summit, already postponed once, finally took place. Under the Biden administration, the foreign minister level meetings were poorly organised, leading to miffed voices in several ASEAN capitals. With defence and commerce secretaries and Vice President Kamala Harris[12] making visits to some ASEAN countries and Secretary of State Antony Blinken having a virtual meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers in August 2021[13], a semblance of protocol order was established.

With the U.S. actually hosting the summit with ASEAN despite the Ukraine crisis, its reaffirmation of ASEAN centrality and support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific as part of the U.S. vision for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, was part of the clear message.

This is significant in light of the forthcoming Quad Summit on May 24th, where it is important for the U.S. to have its engagement with ASEAN visible. The previous Quad summits have taken that group closer to recognising ASEAN’s role. China, which is in the crosshairs of the U.S. policy, has actually enhanced its economic engagement with ASEAN, particularly since the pandemic.[14] The U.S., on the other hand, is missing from the region’s economic matrix. It withdrew in 2017 from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has four ASEAN countries in it. That later became the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP(CPTPP) in which the U.S. is still not present, but to which China has applied for membership.

The U.S. is conscious that, for the next two years, ASEAN countries are chairing global and regional economic summits. Indonesia is chair of the G20 this year and of ASEAN/EAS in 2023. Thailand will chair APEC in 2022. The U.S. is due to announce its Indo-Pacific economic framework, projected as its economic strategy for the region. However, market access is not promised. Instead, the focus is on resilient supply chains, the digital economy and COVID-related engagement, all of which are already taking place through the Quad.

Unless the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework[15] is fully understood by ASEAN, and seen as a fulsome engagement, the role of the U.S. to ASEAN will remain peripheral.

Gurjit Singh is Former Ambassador of India to ASEAN, Current Chair of the CII Task Force on Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit, 2022 Joint Vision Statement, ASEAN 14 May 2022,

[2] ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement on The Reported Killing of Civilians in Ukraine, ASEAN 8 April 2022

[3] Gurjit Singh, Not Russia, China Remains the Biggest Threat to Global Peace as It Fiercely Asserts Dominance In SCS, Eurasian Times, 9 April 2022-

[4] See Note 1

[5] ASEAN and the United States to Convene a Special Summit in Washington D.C. on 12-13 May 2022.Asean 18 May 22-

[6] ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN, 23 June 2019,

[7]Asean divided on the Ukraine crisis, The Star Malaysia, 11 March 2022,

[8] Indonesia Invites Zelensky to G20 Summit in November That Putin Plans to Attend, RFE 29 April 2022,

[9] Gurjit Singh: Is the ASEAN Regional Forum still relevant? ORF, 19 August 2021,

[10] Gurjit Singh: Cambodia chairs ASEAN for the third time, ORF, 17 January 2022,

[11] Charles Santiago and Ed Markey, “A strong US-ASEAN partnership starts with Myanmar”. Jakarta Post 13 May 2022-

[12] Readout of Vice President Harris’s Meeting with Prime Minister Lee of Singapore, White House 29 March 2022,

[13] Gurjit Singh: ASEAN Attracts Strategic Interest- Chanakya Forum, 8 August 2021,

[14] Gurjit Singh: China and ASEAN at 30, Chanakya Forum, 3 October 2021,

[15] Mathew Goodman: Regional Perspectives on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, CSIS, 11 April 2022,

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