According to Reuters, US President Joe Biden is not anticipated to attend summits with Southeast Asian leaders slated for next month in Jakarta.
This potential absence raises questions about the US’s commitment to an area critical in its efforts to counteract China’s growing influence. Biden is set to attend the G20 conference in India on September 9-10, and he has stated his plan to visit Vietnam, a critical developing partner in Southeast Asia, to strengthen ties.
His participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits, scheduled for September 4-7, remains questionable.
According to Reuters, Biden is not expected to visit Indonesia. Furthermore, a Washington-based ambassador representing an ASEAN member said that Biden’s decision not to attend was communicated to Indonesia on Monday.
When asked if Biden’s absence from Indonesia was confirmed, a senior White House source told Reuters on Tuesday, “We’re still working on it… we’ll probably have more to say about it soon.”
The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment. According to Reuters, Biden’s itinerary for Asia is not final until it is revealed and may alter.
Several ASEAN diplomats said it would be a major disappointment if Biden did not visit Jakarta, given the administration’s public emphasis on the region’s importance.
According to a senior diplomat, Indonesia purposefully postponed the ASEAN summits, which are normally held in November, to September in order to facilitate Biden’s attendance and subsequent participation in the G20.
According to sources, Vice President Kamala Harris was expected to represent Biden. Harris, the first Asian American vice president, has previously participated in regional diplomatic endeavors.
Biden earlier caused consternation in the region by delaying a trip to Papua New Guinea in May, which would have been the first visit by a sitting US president, as well as a subsequent scheduled trip to Australia. These cancellations were caused by his efforts to reach an agreement with Congress on a solution to the US debt ceiling situation.
During a speech at an ASEAN-related event in Washington on Tuesday, Jonathan Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, praised the importance of the US-ASEAN relationship and emphasized that the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is fundamentally centered on “ASEAN centrality.”
“It will be viewed as yet another letdown by the region,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program in Washington.
“Southeast Asia has been impressed that Washington, under Biden, has stepped up engagement with the region,” Hiebert said, adding that “for him to skip the summit when he will already be nearby attending a summit in India, and likely making an official visit to Vietnam, will prompt many in the region to wonder whether the US is again slipping back to its episodic and half-hearted engagement with the region.”
Former US ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, who leads the US-ASEAN Business Council, said there would certainly be some regret if Biden was unable to travel to Jakarta, despite the “dramatic” growth in US-ASEAN government-to-government cooperation under Biden, a Democrat.
ASEAN member countries were outraged when Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican predecessor, chose not to attend regional summits for three years in a row. Policy experts see this as helping China’s aspirations to enhance its influence in the region.
Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, attended every US-ASEAN and East Asia summit since 2011, with the exception of 2013, when he had to cancel due to a domestic government shutdown.
(With assistance from Reuters)