MANILA – Despite placing Asia at the center of his foreign policy agenda, as part of a grand bid to constrain China’s ambitions, US President Joseph Biden has been playing catch-up in building relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

With top Biden administration officials having already conducted a flurry of meetings with major European, Middle Eastern and Indo-Pacific powers in recent months, Southeast Asian nations have been largely left in the cold.

In its March Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the Biden administration blatantly left out longtime Southeast Asian allies the Philippines and Thailand altogether. 

Moreover, a technical glitch sabotaged a much-anticipated virtual meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his ASEAN counterparts in late May.

Top diplomats from across Southeast Asia were left waiting 45 minutes before blank screens, as Blinken, who was on a red-eye trip from Ireland to the Middle East, struggled to log into what seemed like a hastily-organized chat with regional counterparts.

The episode, which infuriated ASEAN diplomats, only reinforced the nagging sense that the Biden administration is neglecting the vital region, which has been heavily courted by other major powers not least China.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken blinked in a scheduled meeting with ASEAN counterparts. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

In contrast, ASEAN ministers are set to have in-person meetings with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, this month.

In a bid to make amends, Washington has dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for a series of high-level meetings in Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia this week.

Meanwhile, President Biden signaled his commitment to personally attend the ASEAN Summit in November in Brunei amid lingering uncertainties over defense and strategic ties with longtime regional allies such as the Philippines. 

ASEAN’s insecurities over America’s commitment to the region have a long history. The George W Bush administration largely ignored the regional body throughout its term in office, dedicating the bulk of its strategic capital to prosecuting numerous wars in the Middle East and building cordial ties with China and India.

More recently, former president Donald Trump successively skipped two annual ASEAN summits, while major rival powers such as China and Russia maintained high-level representation at the regional event. 

Ahead of the Biden administration’s election, there was widespread optimism about revitalized US ties with ASEAN members. In its annual survey of regional thought leaders and policymakers, the Singapore-based ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute found that as many as 61.5% of respondents favored stronger ties with the Democratic administration than with China. 

According to the same report, “the region’s support for Washington may have increased as a result of the prospects of the new Biden administration,” just as skepticism over China’s rise deepened in the region.  

One reason for optimism was the return of top-level Obama administration officials, including Biden himself, to the helm of the American foreign policy establishment. Both Blinken and Sherman, for instance, served in senior positions in the State Department under the former Democratic administration.  

Then US President Barack Obama gestures after speaking to ASEAN leaders in Laos in 2016. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Despite widely shared skepticism over the Obama administration’s commitment to check China’s expansionism, the then-president oversaw a golden age in diplomatic relations with ASEAN.

Under Obama’s watch, the US dispatched its first permanent mission to the regional body; upgraded ties with states such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia; promoted a greater Indonesian role in global institutions such as the G20; signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation; and established a number of key regional projects, including the Lower Mekong Initiative, to bolster ties with regional states. 

Through its proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which was later nixed by Trump, the Obama administration also sought to deepen economic ties with several Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia – with the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia as prospective members. 

Presenting himself as “America’s first Pacific president,” Obama, born in Hawaii and partly raised in Indonesia, scheduled Southeast Asia among his first foreign visits, a region that he visited more than any of his predecessors.

Toward the end of his term, he also held the much-vaunted informal summit with ASEAN leader at Sunnylands, California, underscoring the increasingly warm and intimate relations between the two sides.   

The second reason for optimism was the Biden administration’s stated focus on Asia as part of a broader effort to build a coalition of like-minded powers against a resurgent China. As a key theater of great power competition and home to several American military partners, Southeast Asia seemed like a natural priority for the new American president. 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been scheduled to speak in Singapore but the event was canceled. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

So far, however, bilateral diplomatic ties have failed to live up to those expectations. To be fair, the Biden administration tried to reach out to its ASEAN partners early on, with Blinken holding bilateral talks with seven ASEAN members.

Later, Biden invited three leaders from ASEAN to participate in the Earth Day event, while US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was scheduled to speak at the recently-canceled Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

For his part, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also held virtual meetings with ASEAN ambassadors in Washington. 

By and large, however, the Biden administration has seemed more preoccupied with allies in and crises affecting Europe, the Middle East and solidifying ties with the major Indo-Pacific powers of Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. 

There is thus a growing sense among regional states that the US is intent on building an “Asian NATO” with like-minded powers, even if this comes at the expense of ASEAN centrality in shaping the region’s security architecture. 

For the US, diplomatic frictions with authoritarian populists in allied nations such as the Philippines and Thailand, both of which have moved closer to Beijing in recent years, have complicated matters.

Amid disagreements over human rights issues, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to restore the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement, a vital defense deal that is crucial to American power projection in China’s adjacent waters, including in the South China Sea. 

There is also lingering frustration with ASEAN’s limp response to the unfolding political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, especially with the regional body refusing to deny diplomatic recognition to or take tougher actions against the junta following the February coup against the democratically-elected civilian government.

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, left, is greeted at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Tangerang. Photo: AFP

Eager to dispel criticism over its ASEAN diplomacy, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Foreign Policy: “The administration is committed to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN’s essential role in the Indo-Pacific architecture,” while a US National Security Council spokesperson reiterated: “The Biden administration is committed to expanding US engagement with ASEAN.”

During her visit to the region, following earlier talks in Europe and Turkey, Deputy Secretary of State Sherman has the unenviable task of winning over estranged allies and partners across the region.

She also will need to explore concrete steps toward substantive cooperation on shared regional security concerns, ranging from Myanmar’s crisis to China’s expansionism. 

“[She will] reaffirm the United States’ commitment to ASEAN centrality and address a range of bilateral and regional issues, including efforts to urge the Burmese [Myanmar] military to cease violence, release all those unjustly detained and restore Burma to the path of democracy,” the US State Department in a statement ahead of her visit. 

Given ASEAN countries’ geopolitical sensitivities, it will likely take much more than a stopover trip by a senior American official to inject Obama-era vigor into relations. Much will depend on how Biden moves forward to leverage American power and his famed personal diplomacy to win over peevish and estranged Southeast Asian leaders.