Jakarta, IO – The recently concluded ASEAN Summit, held from September 5th to 7th, 2023 in Jakarta, was initially hailed as a significant gathering of Southeast Asian nations. However, it has become increasingly apparent that this summit was more of a theatrical spectacle, resembling a ‘showbiz’ event rather than a substantial diplomatic endeavor.
The absence of United States President Joe Biden, along with subsequent comments from experts and scholars, underscores the summit’s relative insignificance in the context of global geopolitics.
During the 43rd ASEAN Summit in 2023, which wrapped up on Thursday, an unpleasant signal was occurred when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris commended Indonesia at a Gala Dinner hosted by the Indonesian government on Wednesday evening, September 6th. This occurred within the broader framework of the East Asia Summit, attended by ASEAN and various other nations, including China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. In her remarks, Harris expressed gratitude to President Joko Widodo for his leadership within ASEAN during the year.
She also went on to remark that Indonesia’s culinary offerings, event organization, and entertainment surpassed expectations, almost rivaling the extravagance of Hollywood. While this may suggest Harris was impressed by Indonesia’s hosting of the summit, it is crucial to clarify that her comments primarily highlighted Indonesia’s remarkable presentation and hospitality rather than making a statement about the substantive nature of the ASEAN summit itself.
Biden’s decision to skip the annual ASEAN Summit in favor of other engagements speaks volumes about the United States’ stance on Southeast Asia and its Indo-Pacific strategy. The Jakarta Post rightly observes that ASEAN matters so little to the Biden administration that the President chose not to attend, even though he was in the vicinity. Instead, Vice President Kamala Harris was delegated to represent the United States. This deliberate absence sends a clear message that Washington is not entirely pleased with ASEAN, or at least some of its member states, for not wholeheartedly endorsing the Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region and beyond.
One cannot help but wonder why Biden chose to forego this significant regional gathering. Suzie Sudarman, a visiting researcher at Johns Hopkins University, succinctly encapsulates the prevailing sentiment when she remarks, “The message is very clear, the US has already determined its priorities. Indonesia and ASEAN are not included in those priorities.” It is a harsh but realistic assessment of the situation. The United States, in its pursuit of strategic interests, seems to have relegated ASEAN to a secondary role, diminishing its importance in the eyes of the world.
Moreover, the decision of President Biden to visit Hanoi just days after the ASEAN Summit adds to the perplexity surrounding his administration’s stance toward Southeast Asia. This move implies that the United States does not take Indonesia, the most prominent nation in the region and traditionally considered the leader of ASEAN, seriously. It raises serious doubts about the Biden administration’s commitment to Southeast Asia as a whole.
The 2023 ASEAN Summit was hosted by Indonesian President Jokowi, who assumed the role of ASEAN chair. Jokowi’s leadership during the summit aimed to steer the group away from conflicts, confrontations, and power rivalries, both internally and externally, while advocating an ambitious vision for ASEAN’s future, positioning it as the epicenter of global economic growth in the coming decades. However, the absence of the United States, coupled with its strategic focus on other priorities, inevitably casts a shadow on these aspirations.
Critics argue that the ASEAN Summit, in its current form, is becoming increasingly performative, serving little more than a platform for leaders to make grandiose speeches and engage in photo opportunities. The real issues that affect the region’s stability and prosperity often take a backseat to diplomatic posturing and scripted rhetoric. While it is important for leaders to engage in diplomacy and dialogue, the effectiveness and relevance of such summits must be evaluated.
The Jakarta Post article rightly questions whether ASEAN matters to the United States. To answer this question, we must consider the broader context of the evolving Indo-Pacific landscape and the strategic interests of major powers like the United States. From the U.S. perspective, the Indo-Pacific is a region of paramount importance due to its economic significance, security concerns, and the rise of China as a global superpower.