Blinken Snub: US Losing ASEAN to China’s Panda Diplomacy?

By Herman Tiu Laurel

A very significant event for global politics was scheduled on May 25, 2021.

It was particularly significant for the Philippines where an existing clique expects the U.S. to return to the ASEAN region to restore its preeminence and preserve its old neo-colonial vassalage of the Philippines. 

This event was the first meeting of the Biden administration with the 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers in what is known as the annual U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue that has been conducted for decades. It reflects the highest priority placed by the U.S. on its relations with the ASEAN and its vital interests and commitments in the region.

ASEAN’s expectation heightened with the announced attendance of Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the virtual summit.

The May 24th Khmer Times headlined, “ASEAN-U.S. to promote dialogue relations and cooperation” with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn to attend, while Kavi Chongkittavorn, the Bangkok Post’s veteran journalist in regional affairs lauded the forthcoming meet.

 But they were to be disappointed.

As reported on May 27, 2021 by the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy (FP), “On May 25, Southeast Asian foreign ministers gathered in front of their computers for what was to be the first formal encounter with the Biden administration’s top diplomat, a virtual ministerial summit with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But Blinken never appeared.”

The top ASEAN diplomats waited 45 minutes.

According to the U.S. State Department, the United States was unable to secure a video connection for Blinken, who was boarding his plane in Shannon, Ireland, for a red-eye trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, the first leg of an emergency trip to the Middle East to try preserving the shaky cease-fire ending weeks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Nice story, but the U.S. had just landed its Mars rover who had sent videos 337.3 million km. to Earth. And it could not find a video link for 9,800 km. from Ireland to Bangkok?!

 We can only wonder, as are many in the ASEAN capitals, what was the real reason for Blinken’s standing up of the ASEAN dialogue?  Speculation is justified, although some conclusions may not be helpful to US relations in the region.

For Blinken’s is not the first snub – Trump has boycotted U.S.-ASEAN dialogues since 2019, sending only low-level delegations.

 There is negative message, either willful or a Freudian slip, in these apparent spites. The US, who is used to thinking of itself as the world’s singular geopolitical and economic superpower, has seen its significance and influence over Asia and ASEAN wane dramatically even as China, on the other hand, has been rising inexorably.

America’s economic problems, which began with 2008 financial crash – coupled with its innumerable military debacles from Iraq to Afghanistan– have been severely crimping its wings. In the meanwhile, Asia, and particularly ASEAN, has been rising. Asia, with China, has coped with the Covid-19 crisis far better than the U.S., with concomitant high economic recovery hopes.

The U.S. also had serious reversals from the mis-steps of its previous administration, allowing itself to miss out on Asia’s large market by snubbing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) economic pact. With the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), China quickly filled in the vacuum created by the U.S. . And then, the U.S. suffered another loss due to Philippine Independent Foreign Policy of President Duterte.

 The U.S. is now a mere fourth in the ranks of ASEAN trading partners, after China, the E.U. and Japan.

In 2020, China was the ASEAN’s top source of imports and exports, hitting $731.9-billion with 7% growth year-on-year.

The latest available USTR figures on US-ASEAN two-way trade , which are from 2019, placing the total at $ 292.4-billion, a far fourth even if 2020 were a better year (which it was not).

In 2020, the RCEP was sealed amongst ASEAN, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, which puts the ASEAN further out of reach of the U.S. sphere of influence.

It is clear the Biden administration has not been able to put its head around this and, given all these, is at sixes and sevens about ASEAN. This is like analysis paralysis in reverse, which is paralysis because of the total vacuum of ideas with which to respond.

Biden began his new administration on January 20. In his inaugural speech, he declared the United States is “ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” However, the U.S. seems unable to find the front from where to lead and it certainly looks more like it’s retreating from Asia by dropping the ball in the U.S.-ASEAN dialogue. What else can any observer conclude upon seeing the turn of events?

Beyond Biden’s brave words of “leading” is the reality of the U.S. retreating from its many engagements in the past decades, even more than Trump. It is withdrawing early from Afghanistan; it is retreating on Nord Stream 2 in Europe; it is aborting its warships in the Baltic Sea; and it is even quitting its International Space Station, leaving only China’s Tiangong in outer space to represent Mankind.

While the US tries to look tough as in the U.S.-China Alaska meet last March, the move has invited a harsh retort from the Chinese delegation. In his attempt to reset US relations with Russia (i.e., drive a wedge between Russia and China) at the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial talks in Iceland, 

Blinken looked all wet buttering up to Russia’s Lavrov after Biden’s infamous “killer” tag on Putin.

While the U.S. is losing its grip on its relations with ASEAN, China is embracing ASEAN with its famous arm panda hug.  It has donated millions of vaccine doses and exported millions more at the cost of “global public goods” to ASEAN countries. China did these at the earliest stages of the Covid 19 pandemic when they were needed most.

While the US stood up ASEAN in May, China has proposed to host a foreign ministerial meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this month of June, a summit that would extend and consolidate a recent Chinese diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia.

Everyone knows how China lavishes hospitality on its guests. The in-person meet is possible in China because of its successful control of the pandemic and assurance of safety and security for its guests.

China has also offered ASEAN and the RCEP the benefit of riding on its spectacular economic recovery that marked a growth of 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021. It plans to continue this growth by opening up its economy to imports from all over the world. The offer was highlighted by the Hainan First China International Consumer Products Expo that is inviting foreign brands to show off their wares to the Chinese market.              

China’s vaccine donation allowed the Philippine government vaccination program to roll out on March 1, 2021 as scheduled; and today in May, over 5-million doses have been provided by China, giving the high-risk Filipino communities early protection from the pandemic.

Indeed, China has been literally a lifesaver for the Philippines as well as other ASEAN countries receiving its vaccine humanitarianism.

When the China-ASEAN foreign ministerial meet convenes, China shall have scored another triumph for Asia over the receding Cold War and colonial-era superpower. China is bringing the Asian Century’s fruition several levels higher and far beyond the reach of the wishful thinking for a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an alliance of Western interlopers who are disrupting the peace and tranquility of our region with their obnoxious warships.

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