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Congress can help kickstart Biden’s policy in Southeast Asia

Over the past decade, Southeast Asia has become an increasingly important geostrategic region for the United States. With four member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) now among America’s top 20 bilateral trading partners, more American companies than ever have relocated their supply chains to countries like Vietnam and military threats throughout the region are growing in intensity, The strategic importance of Southeast Asia is becoming undeniable. However, despite the growing importance of the region, the Biden administration’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia has left much to be desired.

During his first year in office, Biden and his team showed little commitment to strengthening ties with the ASEAN regional bloc. In May 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken even famously snubbed ASEAN leaders by canceling their first-ever meeting due to a “technical problem” while en route to the Middle East. The move raised questions among Southeast Asians about how engaged the United States really was, especially in the face of other issues “distracting” policymakers such as the Biden administration’s haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan. With new and arguably more urgent foreign policy challenges like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine emerging in the past year, these doubts remain strong.

While the Biden administration has arguably “stepped up” its game in Southeast Asia over the past year, claiming key victories including a historic defense cooperation deal with the Philippines, officially elevating US ties with the ASEAN to that of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and by hosting a successful US-ASEAN special summit in Washington, DC, Southeast Asian leaders remain skeptical of sustained and long-term US engagement in Southeast Asia.

The US Congress can help allay some of these doubts.

On March 23, 2023, the United States House of Representatives approved the “Proving Appropriate Recognition and Treatment Needed to Enhance Relations (PARTNER) with ASEAN Act”, a bipartisan piece of legislation that aims to formally improve the diplomatic status of ASEAN, bringing the regional government bloc in line with other regional groupings such as the European Union. The law is intended to underline the United States’ respect for the centrality of ASEAN, while also establishing a legal framework that would better enable the United States and ASEAN to explore new areas of cooperation.

While not mandating it as law, the House version of the bill recommends the establishment of an ASEAN delegation to the United States to “enhance cooperation between ASEAN and the United States at all levels.” This recommendation is particularly significant as the United States remains the only ASEAN dialogue partner without a domestic delegation or other dedicated institution committed to strengthening bilateral ties with the regional bloc. Both US adversaries and allies, including China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia, have all set up such institutions, further demonstrating the need for one.

By using its constitutional authority to establish and allocate funding for a new independent institution with a mission to strengthen US-ASEAN ties, the US Congress can effectively help both the Biden team and future US politicians “step up” the game of America demonstrating a more stable US commitment to Southeast Asia that could be supported by all presidential administrations. Creating such an institution would address in part a key complaint voiced by Southeast Asian leaders about the US approach: foreign and economic policies seem to change unpredictably every time a new presidential administration comes to power.

The transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, for example, led to the unexpected withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, an agreement that many Southeast Asian countries were parties to and relied on to gain access to the United States market. While the deal was eventually bailed out by Japan under its new name, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP), the US has not signaled its intention to rejoin the deal and some say Washington will remain economically hamstrung. in the Indo-Pacific until it does.

While the Biden administration has attempted to articulate its own economic vision known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), Southeast Asians remain skeptical of its long-term effectiveness. The new framework, divided into four “pillars” and negotiated directly by the executive, was explicitly designed to circumvent Congressional approval, and therefore lacks market access provisions that make its long-term sustainability unlikely.

Another tool available to the US Congress to help the Biden administration “step up” its engagement with Southeast Asia would be the implementation of congressional reporting requirements that monitor progress in areas relevant to US relations -ASEAN, including trade and investment flows, cultural exchange, and bilateral and multilateral engagement with ASEAN member states.

One idea would be for the US Congress to institutionalize the US-ASEAN summit that took place last May on a biennial basis, ensuring that regular high-level exchanges between ASEAN leaders and the executive branch continue on an at least semi-annual basis. -regular. In the past year alone, at least three new leaders have assumed power in Southeast Asia in places including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, demonstrating the need for the United States to continue to engage regularly at the leadership level.

Furthermore, while the Biden administration has made efforts to reach Southeast Asia’s top leaders in recent months, including hosting Philippine President Bongbong Marcos at the White House, high-level engagements between the United States and countries of the ASEAN have historically been low.

The PARTNER with ASEAN Act and its potential to establish an ASEAN-US Center in Washington, DC represents a unique opportunity that could substantially improve America’s relationship with an increasingly critical geostrategic region. After years of neglect of Southeast Asia, it should be up to lawmakers to turn the bill into law and, in doing so, help demonstrate the United States’ continued and long-term commitment to the region.

Sam Baron is the first Policy Fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS). He previously worked as a Southeast Asian affairs analyst based in Washington, DC

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