President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Asia between the 20th and 24th of May will conclude a two-step diplomatic effort to gain region-wide consensus, a process that was kicked off with the US-ASEAN Summit in Washington D.C. on May 12th-13th. However, Biden’s visits to Tokyo and Seoul may lead to a different outcome compared to the previous summit. Indeed, the meeting with ASEAN countries can only be labelled as symbolic since it lacks a clear common view as well as sufficient US economic commitment to the region. Biden’s goal was to create a coherent bloc to contain China, but ASEAN countries seem reluctant to take sides against Beijing. The concluding statement of the summit fails to condemn Russia over its aggression against Ukraine and simply calls for the respect of international law. For his part, Biden announced new initiatives for the ASEAN bloc worth around $150 million, $60 million of which will be allotted to maritime cooperation — a disappointing figure that overwhelmingly falls short of the previous South East Asia Maritime Initiative, worth $425 million. In comparison, last November China pledged $1,5 billion to sustain local economic recovery after Covid-19 over a three-year period.
As such, the US has a long way to go to get ASEAN countries’ preference amid the ongoing great power competition between Washington and Beijing. Part of the problem lays in the inconsistent nature of the US’ strategy towards the region following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Indeed, the original strategy for the region, designed by then-President Barack Obama under the “Pivot to Asia” label, was to combine strategic military effort with economic integration. Ten years since its launch, the US clearly needs — and is in desperate search for — its own plan to strengthen economic integration with the region to reduce China’s influence on the ASEAN bloc. In the meantime, attempts at promoting a regional free trade agreement have not stopped, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) entering into force last January, including fifteen countries (the 10 ASEAN governments plus Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and North Korea). The RCEP covers an area that is already significantly integrated and has solid economic connections with China. Moreover, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is the TPP’s direct heir and its members include not only some ASEAN nations, Japan, New Zealand, or Australia, but also countries from the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean such as Canada, Mexico, and Peru. Apart from geographic considerations, the other major difference between the RCEP and CPTPP is that the latter presents a substantial chapter on State-Owned Enterprises that was originally designed to counter China’s economic model. Between the RCEP and CPTTP, finding room for a new economic agreement will be no easy feat for the US. This is where the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework comes into the picture: it has been anticipated by US officials as a new kind of trade agreement and is supposed to be presented soon. Crucially, its strength is also its weakness as it clearly sets to counter China’s economic influence. This goal may ultimately be shared by US allies in the region, but convincing ASEAN countries — who are deeply connected with China and have already experienced US disengagement from the TPP — will be no small matter.
Biden’s upcoming visits to Japan and South Korea, then, are supposed to guarantee a better outcome than the US-ASEAN Special Summit. While last week the US President had to convince regional actors to side with him against China, in the coming days he will meet with countries already looking to limit Beijing’s influence in the region and on the global stage as a whole. Furthermore, Biden will meet with the other three Quad members (Japan, Australia, and India) for the leaders’ second in-person summit since this format was created. For the US, one of the most critical outcomes will be to keep India firmly within the group of allies strategically aligned with Washington. In fact, New Delhi’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused much concern among Quad members over the continuity of a common strategic goal. Unsurprisingly, international diplomatic efforts involving India have been quite intense since the outbreak of the war, making New Delhi a de facto diplomatic winner so far. What has emerged in the last couple of months is that India is crucial in setting the course for competition in the region. Without India, there is no Indo-Pacific to speak of and any US plan towards the region would be severely affected.
Biden’s first visit to Asia is therefore a crucial moment for his administration and the US’ long-term goals. The President needs strong support for his initiatives and to solidify the bloc of like-minded countries. Here, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework would be the most relevant strategic tool to gain consensus in Asia and revert the ongoing trend of increasing regional trade integration with China.