GT Voice: Trade upgrade key to US engagement with ASEAN
Published: Aug 01, 2021 09:42 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to attend several virtual meetings with officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from Monday to Friday, Reuters reported on Saturday, citing a senior state department official.

These meetings include the US-ASEAN, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Mekong-US Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. 

Blinken's agenda of virtual meetings with Southeast Asian officials comes at a time when the Biden administration has apparently attached increasing importance to the Southeast Asia through intensive diplomatic engagement. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in late May and early June; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin paid a visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in late July. 

The month of August will also see US Vice President Kamala Harris travel to Singapore and Vietnam, the White House said on Friday.

Such intense high-level engagement between US and ASEAN officials is arguably unusual and unprecedented. It shows that the US is aiming to strengthen its relationship with Southeast Asian nations through frequent diplomatic exchanges. Yet, the economic and trade cooperation between the two sides, a weakness throughout these relationships, may be the key as to whether the US could reestablish its influence in the region.

Judging from trade statistics between the US and ASEAN, bilateral trade in goods has been sluggish since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. According to data from the US Census Bureau, bilateral trade between the US and ASEAN reached $307.69 billion in 2020, up 5.38 percent year-on-year. Even though bilateral trade rebounded significantly by gaining more than 20 percent year-on-year in the first five months of this year as a result of the vaccination rollout, this momentum has still been overshadowed by that of the trade between China and ASEAN.

Trade between China and ASEAN skyrocketed by over 85 times over the past three decades, with ASEAN becoming China's largest trading partner in 2020. In the first half of this year, bilateral trade between China and ASEAN recorded a 38.2 percent growth, according to data from Chinese customs.

Moreover, when it comes to inking trade agreements for deepening economic ties, the US has fallen behind the world's other major economies in general. In November 2020, China, ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a regional free trade pact aimed at strengthening regional supply chains. The EU has already had free trade agreements with Vietnam and Singapore. Moreover, some ASEAN countries have also joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership with other Pacific trading partners.

The fact that there is no free trade agreement between the US and Southeast Asian developing nations suggests either that the US used to pay little attention to the region in the past or that trade is indeed a weak link in these relationships. Either way, when ASEAN countries generally maintain diplomatic independence and value the pragmatism of peaceful development, the weakness in terms of economic cooperation may be the key to determine whether the two sides can get closer on many fronts.

At present, Southeast Asia is suffering from the Delta variant strain outbreak, which has led to disruptions to economic activities in some places. It remains to be seen whether the US could offer any meaningful assistance to the Southeast Asian economies in order to win friendship.

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