Washington, regional bloc must cooperate for Indo-Pacific stability

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plays a major role in maintaining stability and order in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan should welcome the move by the United States to begin to improve relations with the group.

A summit between the United States and the ASEAN member countries was held in Washington. It was the first time for a summit between the two sides to be held in the United States since 2016, when then President Barack Obama was in office. Former President Donald Trump’s absence from a series of ASEAN-related international meetings had given the impression that the United States was taking Southeast Asia lightly.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has dispelled this impression, showing that it takes ASEAN’s role seriously. Biden emphasized that “the great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written and the ASEAN countries and our relationship with you is the future in the coming years and decades,” and declared that “we’re launching a new era — a new era in U.S.-ASEAN relations.”

As specific measures, Biden mentioned providing financial assistance for improving the maritime security capabilities of each ASEAN country and combating infectious diseases. The U.S. president also announced the appointment of an ASEAN ambassador, a post which has been vacant.

The United States and ASEAN have committed to upgrading their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and will strengthen cooperation in all areas.

China and ASEAN have made similar upgrades, as of last year. The latest agreement is a symbolic indication that the United States has begun to put serious effort into bringing ASEAN onto its side.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also on the agenda at the summit. The joint statement issued after the end of the summit emphasized respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an environment for a peaceful resolution.

It is highly significant that the United States and ASEAN agreed to aim at maintaining international order based on the U.N. Charter. On the other hand, the fact that the joint statement did not include criticism of Russia by name reflects the complicated position of ASEAN.

Among the ASEAN members, Singapore is the only country that has joined in sanctions against Russia. Laos and Cambodia, whose economies are highly dependent on China, have come into line with Beijing’s opposition to sanctions and have refrained from criticizing Russia.

Vietnam, which is in fierce conflict with China over territorial issues in the South China Sea, relies on Russia for arms procurement and has taken a different position from Japan and the West.

There is an aspect of each ASEAN member engaging in its own hard-nosed diplomacy while trying to avoid getting caught up in the competition among great powers. It would be imprudent to press them into deciding which one — the United States or China — they will side with.

Japan, as a leader in Asia, should be able to act as a bridge to promote mutual understanding between the United States and ASEAN. Through persistent diplomacy, Japan should play an active role in realizing a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 17, 2022)