The US-Asean Summit and role of the Philippines
The ties between the United States (US) and the Philippines, one of the founding member of Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), has witnessed a drastic change in the outgoing Rodrigo Duterte regime. However, the US still remains one of the most significant strategic and trading partner for the archipelago country. However, many scholars of the region believe that given Manila’s growing ties with Beijing, the Philippines has high stakes in the discussion and issues that will be pivoted across the table.
On April 26, President Duterte announced that he would not be attending the US-Asean summit, supposed to be conducted in Washington between May 12-13. The reason given is the Philippines’ general elections which are to be conducted on May 9. As the Philippines’ constitution permits a president to serve a single 6-year term only, he would be succeeded by a new president who will take office on June 30. Ferdinand Marcos Jr is now the new president..
Initially supposed to be conducted in March, the summit was postponed&nbsp;due to the inability of some of the Asean leaders to attend the summit on due dates and slight hiccups in communication between Asean and the US. Conducted in the shadow of the Ukraine crisis, multiple themes are expected to be the part of the discussions ranging from Covid-19 response, maritime security, climate change, education, people-to-people ties, and issues of regional and international concerns.
The summit would be the first in-person engagement of the leaders since 2017 and conducted to celebrate the four-and-half-decade anniversary of the Asean-US Dialogue relations. The summit provides an excellent opportunity for the US to gain support from Southeast Asia with a population of 6.56 billion, bigger than Europe, to isolate Russia further and counter the Chinese-Indo pacific strategy.
Established in 1967 to foster the region’s economic prosperity, security, and cultural cooperation, the 10-member organisation of ASEAN has played a paramount role in Asian economic integration. ASEAN’s importance to the US can also be reflected by its status as the 5th biggest trading partner the US and further boosted by its growing market and strategic locations in the South China Sea.
The two-year-long continuing pandemic has caused unforeseen damage to the economy of ASEAN, with the Asian Developing bank reporting that in 2021 about 4.7 billion were being pushed into poverty in the region, and about 9.3 billion jobs were expunged from the market of the region. Asean has tried to show its resilience by embracing economic digitalisation, connectivity, regional economic integration, stepping up health infrastructure, and boosting regional supply change. However, still, its economy is far below the pre-pandemic level. President Biden will try to leverage this opportunity by advocating his “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” which manifests US efforts to assume trade leadership in the region again. However, the framework is far from a complete trade deal containing binding commitments regarding the opening of markets and mostly centers around infrastructure, digital connectivity, and supply chain resilience. Asean countries can push for more serious agreements with the opening of the US market in many areas for the region.
ASEAN’s attempts to bolster its economic recovery post-COVID face two major impediments from outside the region, which were connected to the US. These are the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing US-China trade rivalry. Although there is no major economic partnership between Russia or Ukraine and Asean, the implications of severe trade sanctions imposed by the west on Russia are quite apparent. The disruption of the supply of energy and agricultural goods from Russia can drive up the agricultural prices and food inflation, impacting the region’s prospects for recovery. Thus, its obvious Asean would be in favuor of de-escalation and a way for Asean to navigate through excessive sanctions. On the other hand, the US will try to seek unanimity in the Asean stance on Ukraine. While countries like Myanmar have openly supported Putin in the invasion, Vietnam and Indonesia have taken a neutral stance, and others were on the American side. The US would try to press Asean to further denounce Russia&nbsp;and take a critical stance.
Biden administration, already apprehensive of China’s influence in the region, has kept in place Trump’s $ 350 million tariff&nbsp;on Chinese products imperiling the global supply chain. Although many industries forced to move out of China due to these tariffs are relocating themselves to Southeast Asia, the trade war would cause loss to the region in the long-term. This is because uncertainties were created in an already fragile global investment market, disincentivizing the investment in the region and growing bifurcation of the technological supply chain. Moreover, the Chinese attempts to militarise the south china sea and further changes in its maritime disputes in the region are bound to crop up in the discussion. Both parties are likely to pledge their support for the unimpeded flow of commerce in the maritime waters.
The situation in Myanmar, one of the members of Asean, is one of the chief concerning issue for Asean and the US. The 14-month-old military Junta is trying hard to quell resistance against the osverthrow of the elected Aung-San-Suu-Kyi government in february 2021. The country's economy is rattling, and public health is in a shambling state. Although Asean chair Cambodia has agreed not to invite the military government for the special summit, the Asean response to the situation in Myanmar is unsatisfactsory.This is reflected in the Junta’s complete ignorance of its 5-point Asean consensus plan containing an agreement to end violence. As the military government has closer links to Russia and China, the US is likely to push Asean for greater pressure on the junta towards restoring the democratic government and ending the bloodshed.
Since its inception, Asean has remained one of the cornerstones of the trading and foreign policies of the Philippines. Philippines firmly believes in “Asean centrality” and believes that Asean should be the interlocutor between competing global powers in the region.The Philippines has maintained cordial bilateral ties&nbsp;with the other member nations and remain one of the most prominent countries of the regional bloc. The US also has maintained amicable historical military and trade relationship with its former archipelago colony. However, the Duterte regime had ushered new change in the US relations with the Philippines with the growing insistence of Duterte on an independent foreign policy. This policy emphasises the dilenation of foreign policy from the US and improving ties with China and other geo-political actors like Russia. The US postures on human rights issues during Duterte’s war on criminality and drugs had been unpleasantly viewed by Manila, which considers as interference in their sovereign policy. The deteriorating relationship between both these countries was further marred by the termination of visiting force agreement by Duterte in February 2020.
On the other hand, Washington is apprehensive of growing Chinese influence over the archipelago.
However, Chinese infrastructure promises have still failed to&nbsp;materialise and its continuous show of aggression does not bode well for the long term Manila-Beijing ties. Surveys have also indicated that the US remains one of the most trusted countries for the Filipinos, and the Chinese presence is still viewed with suspicion. Thus, Phillipines’ participation and position in the summit will be important as the discussion range from the issue of maritime security, defense security, and digital technology. The Philippines' attitude toward the summit will be keenly watched by regional and global geo-political actors.
(The study has been authored by Harsh Mahaseth is assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, and senior research analyst at the Nehginpao Kipgen Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs. Jetendra Vishwakarma is a student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)