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Imagining a comprehensive ASEAN-US partnership

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US President Joe Biden during the US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, DC, on May 13. AFP

Imagining a comprehensive ASEAN-US partnership

Perhaps there is no better way to look at the future trajectory of the relations between the US and ASEAN than through the prism of Vietnamese-US bilateral ties.

On the sidelines of the May 12-13 US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington following an interaction between US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Vietnamese deputy foreign minister Ha Kim Ngoc, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.

“We have seen a remarkable trajectory in the relationship between the US and Vietnam, and we are now the strongest of partners, with a shared vision for security in the region and for the strongest possible economic ties,” said Blinken.

The ways in which Hanoi and Washington manage to develop their relationship despite huge differences can be a template for the greater Indo-Pacific region, where rivalries and competitions can coexist with more productive and constructive engagements.

Despite the lack of very high expectations for the special summit, its final outcome, the Joint Vision Statement, was welcomed as a positive development, opening, according to US President Joe Biden, a new era in the ties between Southeast Asia and the US.

Yet, if the US truly wants to establish a new transformative relationship with its Southeast Asian partners, it needs to step up its “carrot” power rather than overemphasising its “stick” one.

Between realism, pragmatism and ambition, the ongoing partnership between Hanoi and Washington shows how Americans can forge an excellent relationship with a former enemy with an antithetical political system.

Fulbright University Vietnam in Hanoi, the only liberal arts university in the country, is probably the best example of how such cooperation, despite differences, can flourish and become a paragon for bilateral relationships. The university hosts the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academy, an initiative that got a big boost during the special US-ASEAN summit.

Doubling the number of its beneficiaries, thousands more young Southeast Asians will have an opportunity to strengthen their leadership and knowledge with cutting-edge training, seminars and exchange visits.

If the summit in Washington came up short in terms of financial commitments toward Southeast Asia, initiatives like YSEALI saw huge scale-ups.

This type of cooperation could offer a potent platform to strengthen ASEAN-US connections, in addition to the fact that the special summit also saw the announcement of a soon-to-be established US-ASEAN Institute for Rising Leaders.

Moreover, higher education received major support. Equally important, we should not forget the summit’s emphasis on the essential topic of climate change.

With China more and more assertive in maintaining its primacy in the region, and with the ASEAN nations keen to maintain cordial relationships with Beijing, yet also very interested in diversifying their relationships, the vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific should also be delivered through soft partnerships rather than only through the lens of defence and security.

Biden’s choice of ambassador to ASEAN, Yohannes Abraham, his current chief of staff to the White House National Security Council, will certainly try to move the needle in this direction. Abraham will play a critical role in balancing a stronger security dimension with an even more strongly reinvigorated public diplomacy.

The latter is an area often taken for granted, but perhaps it is the only place where the major powers, primarily the US and China, but also other important actors like the EU, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia, can work together for the best interest of Southeast Asia.

China, at least in principle, welcomes the positive role the US can play to help develop Southeast Asia, and more and more actors are willing to step up.

There is so much that can be done to support and strengthen ASEAN.

Imagine, it took more than two years for its members to agree on the Mutual Recognition of Covid-19 Vaccination Certificates. At least in such matters, the leaders of the bloc should shift gears and speed up their ambition.

Having so many partners keenly interested in helping could further incentivise ASEAN leaders to act more swiftly.

We will see how the annual summit, the 10th summit between ASEAN and the US, scheduled for November, will be able to follow up on the Washington special summit. It is a summit equally important because it is where a “comprehensive” aspect will be added to the already strategic ASEAN-US partnership.

Normally a much longer process, further enhancing bilateral relationships at a comprehensive level was, without a doubt, a success story of the Washington conclave.

For the US, acting comprehensively will mean adaptability, flexibility and creativity in connecting the dots in the region. The visit of Biden to South Korea and Japan will further cement the US’ role in the Indo-Pacific region.

To truly engage ASEAN, it is important that the ongoing Quad, whose second in-person leaders’ meeting will occur in Tokyo during Biden’s stay in Japan, can strengthen its multifaceted pillars of cooperation. This new group, which one day might become a quintet with the inclusion of South Korea, needs to evolve “comprehensively” as well.

Perhaps an area where Biden can try to be more successful as a unifier than what he has thus far achieved back home is in bringing South Korea and Japan closer together. Their rivalry and their endless squabbling, a painful legacy of the horrors of the last century, no longer make any sense.

Ultimately what will count is a Quad, not only described by its members, but also perceived by others, as a framework for mutual and beneficial development of the people of the whole region, including Southeast Asia.

The US’ increasingly assertive role in the Indo-Pacific means not only stepping up its maritime presence but also holistically investing more in the collective wellbeing of the region. The US’ cooperation with its likeminded partners in Quad, or eventually in a quintet, should enable greater adaptation and deeper cooperation with uncomfortable partners in daunting areas of policymaking within the vast Asian Pacific region.

It is something the US learned to master while dealing with Vietnam. The same might occur also with countries like Cambodia and even China.

Competing strategically does not preclude comprehensively dealing with each other’s differences, but maintaining the interest of the people of the region before any national interest.

Simone Galimberti comments on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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