The importance of the US-ASEAN Special Summit

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

At the conclusion of the 2020 US elections, we immediately reached out to Antony Blinken, who is now Secretary of State, and other advisers such as Deputy Assistant to the President and White House National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Dr. Ely Ratner.

We were pleased that shortly after taking office in January 2021, the administration of President Biden set the wheels in motion to reach out to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the ASEAN Committee in Washington (ACW) composed of ASEAN ambassadors to the US. The ACW diplomats regularly engage with the White House, US congressmen and senators, key government officials as well as private sector groups to elevate the profile of the regional bloc and bring focus on issues of concern. Aside from trade and investments, among the predominant topics of course include the COVID-19 situation and the hate crimes being perpetrated against Americans of Asian descent.

Reaching out to ASEAN is something we appreciate from the Biden administration, and scheduling the US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, D.C. this May is not only timely but important as well in underscoring the continued importance that the United States places on the region amid the growing crisis in Ukraine.

The special summit is being held to coincide with the 45 years of relations between the US and ASEAN, and is an opportunity to reinforce the important role that Southeast Asia plays in the Indo-Pacific region as highlighted in the concept of ASEAN “centrality.” This is enshrined in the organization’s charter and is based on the principles of openness, transparency and inclusivity in dealing and cooperating with external partners.

This centrality was explained in the statement issued by ASEAN leaders in June 2019 following the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. Titled “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” the statement took note of the “geopolitical and geostrategic shifts” happening in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, with Southeast Asia “at the center of these dynamic regions.”

In short, ASEAN plays a central and strategic role and, as such, it is in the interest of Southeast Asian nations to “lead the shaping of their economic and security architecture and ensure that such dynamics will continue to bring about peace, security, stability and prosperity for the peoples in the Southeast Asia as well as in the wider Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions or the Indo-Pacific.”

The statement, which enumerated a broad range of areas of cooperation that include peaceful settlement of disputes, promoting maritime safety and security as well as connectivity, stressed ASEAN’s intention to “strengthen and give new momentum for existing ASEAN-led mechanisms to better face challenges and seize opportunities arising from the current and future regional and global environments.”

Analysts have long recognized the importance of Southeast Asia relative to the national security strategy of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, and in light of the growing prominence of China. US policymakers must navigate the challenge of sustaining foreign policy commitments that would uphold US interests while also serving the needs of the region.

Last February, the White House released the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, recognizing the “undeniable reality” that the Indo-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world and that its future affects people everywhere. Aside from advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific, the strategy also aims to drive prosperity in the region, with the US remaining as the “number one investment partner in ASEAN member-countries.”

Connectivity is also highlighted, with the US set on building collective capacity within and beyond the region through several initiatives, including the deepening of regional treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.

As a member of ASEAN, it is important for the Philippines to play a major role in shaping future policies that would sustain economic growth while boosting human development to fight poverty and uplift the lives of people in the region.

It is unfortunate that the summit is scheduled for May 12 shortly after our elections, that is why I totally understand why President Duterte cannot attend it. As the President pointed out, we will definitely have a president-elect by then, so he was being prudent, opting not to attend out of delicadeza, and avoid making decisions or commitments at the summit that might not be aligned with the policies of our next president.

Secretary Teddy Locsin will represent the President. I have no doubt our participation at the summit will be very important for us since discussions will center on a wide range of areas of mutual interest and concern such as defense and security, future pandemic response, climate change, maritime cooperation, economic engagement, energy, digital technology and strengthening people-to-people ties, among others.

Just before we relinquished our chairmanship of the ACW last January, we had successful meetings with US officials that included Ely Ratner and White House National Security Advisers. We also had meetings with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and just recently, we met with USTranscom Commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost at the Philippine embassy in Washington.

The US-ASEAN Special Summit in May and our National Day celebration in June will be two of the last significant events I will be attending before the end of my term in Washington, DC. It’s not only been an honor to represent the President in such an important post but, more importantly, it’s been a privilege to serve our country and the Filipino people.

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