ASEAN summit 2022: How did the great power rivalry play out?

ASEAN countries had failed to address the crisis in front of Joe Biden to a significant degree, the US conceded to working on regional crises like the Myanmar crisis along with climate change and economic development.

As the chair of the regional organization, Cambodia organized this year the 40th and 41st ASEAN (Association for South-East Asian Nations) summits from November 10 to 13 which the president of the United States, Joe Biden attended, marking a significant elevation in the US-ASEAN relationship. On the 12th of November, the 10th US-ASEAN summit was held between the parties where Biden talked about diverse issues ranging from Climate Change to the Taiwan crisis. This, however, was Joe Biden’s second in-person trip to the region which was mainly intended to remold its relationship with the countries with a view to tackling the growing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, during the mega-summit of ASEAN, Xi Jinping was also anticipated to join but he did not rather; Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang was sent to attend the summits. On the 11th of November, he attended the 25th China-ASEAN Summit. Subsequently, he also joined the 25th ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit and the 17th East Asia Summit. Further time, Xi Jinping also relished meetings with Joko Widodo and other ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit, in Bali, Indonesia where he took the advantage of the dialogue to bolster further mutual understanding between China and ASEAN. Both Li and Xi reiterated their commitment to “building a peaceful, safe and secure, prosperous, beautiful and amicable home” based on the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ which was acquired by the country last year to expand the future room for bilateral cooperation.

US President Joe Biden told ASEAN leaders during a summit in Washington, DC that the US relationship with the region 'is the future' [Susan Walsh/AP Photo]
US President Joe Biden told ASEAN leaders during a summit in Washington, DC that the US relationship with the region ‘is the future’ [Susan Walsh/AP Photo]

Both the US and China exhibited what they think of the region and how it could mold the grand strategies of the countries. During his speech, Biden sent an intense message to China over its influence in the region and the South China Sea although he claimed that ‘he doesn’t want any war with China.’ He took ‘another critical step’ by unveiling the new’US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ to bolster the relationship. On the other hand, Xi told that China is not craving for “hegemony” over its neighbors but rather seeks a more cooperative approach to ensure mutual strategic development. In their approaches to the region based on the recent summits, great power rivalry again became palpable to a considerable extent. The US is pushing back against China with a tactical stance by capturing the position of “strategic partner”, while China is struggling to retain the position.

The US emphasizing ‘the free and open indo-pacific region’, is looking for a more robust strategic partnership with the region which Biden thinks is a crucial part of his administration’s strategy. In this regard, he underscored ‘ASEAN as the heart of his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.’  Biden with the critical step of building ‘the US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ is striving to counter the approach that was acquired by China last year. However, Biden remarked that through this strategic partnership both parties “will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security.” Biden also added that this will help the parties to “defend against the significant threats to rule-based order and threats to the rule of law, and to build an Indo-Pacific that’s free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”

During the series of summits, from China’s side, Li Keqiang, the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China attended the 25th China-ASEAN Summit. This was very crucial for China, amidst global crises such as the Ukraine war, economic fallout, food crisis and health crisis, to enhance the level of cooperation and to remove the ‘prejudices’ about China’s rise. Not only for geostrategic rivalry with the US but also because the economic significance of the ASEAN countries in China’s economic growth had led Li to attend the summit and engage with the leaders. Li reiterated the importance of the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in the relationship between China and ASEAN which was inaugurated in November last year. However, from an economic perspective, both sides are gradually reaching a new height. Two-way trade reached US$798.4 billion in the early months of 2022 which marked a breakthrough in this regard.

Flag of ASEAN
Flag of ASEAN

Focusing on development, Li emphasized working together with the new framework of ‘Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).’ On the whole, Li highlighted the issues of mutual economic cooperation, people-to-people connection and security cooperation. Li said “the Cold War mentality is resurfacing” throughout the world that seeks more cooperative endeavors to avert it. 

However, while the US is concerned with remolding the region with the shape of its own “comprehensive strategic partnership”, Li urged the ASEAN countries to keep believing in the Chinese policies. A few days after the summit, during his meetings with the ASEAN leaders, Xi Jinping told, “Beijing would not ‘bully’ its smaller regional neighbors, amid rising tension over the South China Sea.” Xi also asserted his hope for working on ‘Asian Moment.’ However, the implicit objectives are clear; to stave off the influence of the US over the region and the South China Sea. In this regard, Yongwook Ryu, an analyst in Singapore argued that ‘China is pursuing to strengthen their relationships with the Southeast Asian countries with a view to shoring up regional backing for Beijing or making sure that the countries will not end up being on the side of the US against China.’

Among all other issues, the Myanmar crisis has hit the top of the agenda in this year’s ASEAN summits. In talking about the crisis, the US and China have approached very diversely. While the US has been very voiceful about the predicament, China appears to be pursuing a quiet policy in this regard. Although the ASEAN countries had failed to address the crisis in front of Joe Biden to a significant degree, the US conceded to working on regional crises like the Myanmar crisis along with climate change and economic development. However, the US has always been against the military junta of the country. The Biden administration has already undertaken bunches of sanctions against the regime and relished several meetings with the opposition party National Unity Government (NUG). On the other hand, China is continuing a robust relationship with the military regime. Even during his speech, Li Keqiang skipped the issue. These ideological stances made the rivalry more obvious during summits and thereafter.

While the US highly regards a ‘rule-based order’ against an ‘authoritarian-based’ order led by China, in the Indo-Pacific region, Taiwan along with Myanmar and North Korean crisis is one of the crucial hubs of great power politics between the countries. After the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, it became more apparent that the US is now reckless to thwart the rise of China.

In the South China Sea, China’s growing influence through BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) has become a great impediment to the quote-unquote “rules-based international order of the US.” On the other hand, it cannot be refuted that China is pursuing more assertive policies nowadays, but the US has exaggeratedly portrayed China as a ‘coercive and imperialist’ over the neighboring countries. During the summits, it has been discernible that while the US reiterated the “rules-based order,” China gave importance to the discussion of its politico-strategic translucency regarding the ASEAN region.

Focusing on the growing reign of the US over the ASEAN region, a Russian diplomat said, “the United States and its NATO allies are trying to master this space,” and in this respect, “ASEAN has become a battlefield for the West’s New Cold War with Eastern rivals.” However, without any misgivings, the ASEAN region is geo-strategically and geo-economically a crucial hub of grave great power rivalry where the US and China are keen on securing their politico-economic interests at any cost. With the advantages of “comprehensive strategic partnership”, both the US and China aim for greater interests in the region while one is through the IPS strategy the other is through BRI. And to meet their goals, the ASEAN countries always hold pivotal importance from geostrategic as well as economic perspectives. In this respect, this year’s summits have been competent to prove why the region is substantial for the great power rivalry and how this will further elevate it to a new height.

The writer is a researcher, CBGA-The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs.

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