Observer: US' 'Indo-Pacific strategy' a hard sell to region
By Ya Xin
People's Daily app

The US met ASEAN leaders on Thursday for a two-day special summit, one of the wider efforts under Washington’s “Indo-Pacific strategy.” The strategy serves the US’ geopolitical purpose of containing China instead of genuine regional interests, and would likely be a hard sell.

In recent years, the US has eyed Southeast Asia as a focal point of its “competition” with China. Washington has used rhetoric support for “ASEAN centrality,” which was claimed in both the “Indo-Pacific strategy” document in February and the current US-hosted summit, to cloak its strategic intention. That is to woo Southeast Asian countries for a regional order serving American interests and counter China’s growing influence in the region.

Following the Five Eyes, the QUAD and the AUKUS, the “Indo-Pacific strategy” is Washington’s another attempt to build US-led blocs. A regional strategy aiming to shore up US hegemony cannot be expected to truly respect the region’s interests. Instead, by dragging Southeast Asia into the “US-China rivalry,” the strategy will threaten the region’s stability and unity, let alone ASEAN’s central role in regional security architecture, which will not be welcomed by the group.

The US has put more emphasis on security than economy in its past involvement in Southeast Asia, and it now tries to save its declining economic clout in the region and expand economic engagement with ASEAN, the world’s fifth-largest economy. However, the US has a record of flip-flops on the trade issue in the Asia-Pacific. The Trump administration abandoned Obama’s signature trade pact, Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Biden administration is starting all over again with a new plan named “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).” The policy shifts leave the region bewildered about the credibility and consistency of Washington.

US trade policy has been following the “America First” principle, and is not substantially designed for regional prosperity. The forthcoming IPEF is no exception. Regional governments see the IPEF as a proposal with many US requests, few US offers, and many credible alternatives, said a Diplomat article by the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. For example, as some observers mentioned, ASEAN countries are looking for greater access to the US market, but the US government has repeatedly stated that increased market access and commitments are off the table.

The US’ “Indo-Pacific strategy” rests on expectations of “increasing the rift” between ASEAN and China. But Southeast Asian countries would hold a cautious attitude towards that purpose, as they would not want to face a binary choice. China has been ASEAN’s largest trade partner since 2009. China-ASEAN bilateral trade hit $732 billion in 2020, while US goods and services trade with ASEAN totaled $362 billion. Since RCEP came into force in January, China’s trade with RCEP members has sustained steady growth. Regarding some disputes, China always stresses the peaceful settlement with stakeholders. It also continues to honor its commitments regarding the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Some Southeast Asian countries have expressed the hope for an open and inclusive framework for countries’ engagement in Asia-Pacific. Under the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” Southeast Asia was inevitably seen through the lens of “US-China competition.” The Asia-Pacific region is a promising land for cooperation and development, not a chessboard for a geopolitical contest.