This article by Austin Ong, originally published in the Manila Times, discusses US President Biden’s visit to Asia and the recent US-ASEAN summit, during which the US offered $150 million in infrastructure development funding to the countries of Southeast Asia. Ong notes that this is a very small amount compared with China’s ongoing investment in the region, which includes the recently-completed high-speed railway link between Laos and Yunnan, alone worth $6 billion. The US has also failed to offer ASEAN members tariff-free access to its domestic market; whereas China was a strong proponent of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which came into force at the beginning of this year. The US’s economic commitments to Asia pale in comparison to its military commitments such as the AUKUS trilateral pact, which will provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. This indicates very clearly that while China focuses on win-win cooperation and development, the US continues to pursue hegemony.
Optimism was replaced with frustration and disbelief after the much feted hosting by Washington of visiting Asean leaders resulted only in a paltry $150-million pledge. For such a vital region at the heart of great power competition, the sum is infinitesimal. It is hard to imagine how this small drop in the bucket will get to be apportioned to 10 countries with pressing developmental needs raring to recover from a pandemic.
Biden’s meeting with Asean leaders is the first meeting of a US President since 2017, was rescheduled twice, and came a year after Blinken did not show up for his first virtual meeting with the Asean ministers which the US had arranged. The US blamed it on a technical glitch as Blinken was enroute to Israel. Twelve days later, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi met with his counterparts in person at the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in China.
Furthermore, Biden’s pledge speaks volume of where the US is focused on — security — much to the dismay of regional countries which hoped the US will step up in providing economic goods to provide a counterweight to China. Of America’s $150 million commitment to the region, $60 million will go to deepening maritime cooperation led by the US Coast Guard ships in the South China Sea. Absent robust dialogue and crisis management mechanisms, this may only raise tensions and trigger an arms build-up in the region and chances for miscalculations.
The US only allotted $40 million in infrastructure. To put things in perspective, under China’s decade-old Belt and Road Initiative, the China-funded high-speed railway in Laos which opened last December is worth $6 billion. The two friendship bridges donated by China to help decongest Manila’s notorious traffic are already worth $150 million, in addition to over $350 million in grants for various livelihood projects from 2016 to 2021. Billions of dollars worth of major infrastructure and development projects across the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, even in Myanmar are being fast-tracked. While some projects face issues and may even get derailed, they are still light years away from what the US is investing in the region.Continue reading US-Asean Summit exposes the US’s real priorities