One of the key outcomes of the recent U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit held in Washington on May 12-13 was a publicized agreement by both sides to finalize the institutional upgrade of the U.S.-ASEAN relationship to the level of comprehensive strategic partnership later this year. While the development may have been overshadowed by other summit deliverables – including $150 million in additional U.S. funding across a range of areas and the nomination of a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN – it nonetheless holds significance within the context of the evolution of U.S.-ASEAN relations, U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia as a region, and Washington’s evolving approach to the wider Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. pursuit of closer relations with ASEAN as a grouping – as opposed to ties with Southeast Asia, which date back in some cases several centuries – has been through a series of inflection points since Washington began engaging with ASEAN as a dialogue partner in 1977, from U.S. participation in evolving institutional innovations within ASEAN such as the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994 to the signing of the ASEAN-U.S. Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in 2006. The latest major institutional upgrade came in November 2015, when both sides formally elevated their relationship to the level of strategic partnership during the 3rd U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur amid heightened engagement under U.S. President Barack Obama, capped off with the Special U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands in 2016.
Since then, U.S.-ASEAN relations and the regional and global environment have both been through a period of flux. While the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump did try to engage ASEAN as it charted its Indo-Pacific vision, the decline of high-level U.S. engagement, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Trump’s unpredictability in intensified U.S.-China competition cast doubt over the U.S. regional role, one that lingers under U.S. President Joe Biden despite some changes. In the meantime, other countries consolidated their relationship with ASEAN, with Australia and China being the first to record the designation of comprehensive strategic partnership last year. This occurred even as ASEAN as an institution continued to deal with a series of mounting challenges, from rising populism and protectionism to the ongoing crises in the South China Sea and post-coup Myanmar.
Earlier this month, at the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held in Washington, D.C., both sides paved the way for a further inflection point in U.S.-ASEAN relations. Following two days of wide-ranging deliberations that included engaging with Biden, key cabinet members, legislators, and the business community, the U.S.-ASEAN Joint Vision Statement noted both sides had committed to elevate ties to an ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that was “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial” at the 10th ASEAN-U.S. Summit set to take place in November 2022. The statement laid out some of the initial areas of cooperation in eight sections: COVID-19; economic ties; maritime cooperation; people-to-people connectivity; subregional development; technology and innovation; climate change; and peace and security.
The pursuit of a comprehensive strategic partnership is not without significance. From a U.S. perspective, it is not only a powerful signal of commitment from the Biden team, but an opportunity to demonstrate specific functional areas where Washington can provide the most value add relative to other dialogue partners and link its approach to ASEAN with regional and global priorities and mechanisms in U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, whether the digital economy or the Quad. For ASEAN, nomenclature matters, and the partnership quest provides an opportunity to define what puts the United States in the class of dialogue partners with the highest level of relations with the grouping within Southeast Asia’s diversified set of ties with major powers in the region. That wider significance is important to keep in mind as questions linger on individual indications, such as whether Biden will attend the ASEAN-U.S. Summit set for Cambodia in-person in November.
Yet at the same time, the forging and implementation of a comprehensive strategic partnership will require work by both sides, both in terms of the content of that partnership and managing wider dynamics. On content, though some areas like maritime cooperation and clean energy are relatively established and saw specific additional financing at the recent summit, others such as COVID-19 and subregional cooperation still need fleshing out in order to address key dynamics, be they the Quad’s shift to the provision of public goods such as vaccines or the Mekong’s linkages to wider U.S.-ASEAN engagement – a point absent in the Indo-Pacific Strategy released despite advances in the Mekong-U.S. Partnership. Strategic communications efforts will also be key to ensure that the partnership – which is being messaged publicly through more inclusive, forward-looking slogans such as “Billion Futures” – is seen as tangibly delivering for people, particularly in the United States, where Southeast Asia competes within a crowded foreign policy landscape.
The United States and ASEAN will also need to manage wider challenges and uncertainties that lie ahead in U.S. relations with Southeast Asia as a region. On the U.S. side, the Biden team will need to navigate a domestic environment that makes it challenging to marshal resources for an affirmative, inclusive regional approach that benefits as much of Southeast Asia as possible, as we have seen with the repeated ASEAN requests for a more inclusive approach to the recently-launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in Tokyo, which initially includes seven out of the ten ASEAN members. On the ASEAN side, forging cooperation on areas like technology or energy within the diverse grouping’s consensus-based format can prove challenging, especially as it also develops its still nascent ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
That said, the quest for a comprehensive strategic partnership provides both the United States and ASEAN with a shared impetus for working together to further elevate ties as well as define a shared agenda for the future of a combined billion people. As such, the work to forge this partnership and to implement it in the coming months and years will remain a key story line to watch within Washington’s broader relationship with Southeast Asia under Biden and beyond.