US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the special session with ASEAN last week to shore up Washington’s position in Southeast Asia. He touched on China, the disputes over the South China Sea, the situation in Myanmar and the response to COVID-19, amongst others. Strangely enough, the phrase “free and open Mekong” was introduced for the first time in the latest US position regarding the most important strategic area of mainland Southeast Asia.
Most of the media reports focused exclusively on the US vitriol towards China related to the South China Sea conflict on what was, after all, the fifth anniversary of the Arbitral Tribunal ruling. In addition, in a polite way, Washington also stepped up pressure on ASEAN to implement the five-point consensus over the current crisis in Myanmar.
The conference, a special introductory session, was scheduled specifically for Blinken and ASEAN foreign ministers to get to know each other, after the scheduled meeting in late May was aborted due to technical glitches. That helps explain why this time there was no joint statement issued by the host. In addition, it avoided official recognition of Wunna Maung Lwin, Myanmar’s State Administrative Council’s foreign minister, who was present at the meeting. However, there will be a joint statement following the scheduled ASEAN post-ministerial meeting with the US in early August, where more substantive matters will be discussed. The “interim” status of the Naypyitaw regime will be clear.
Missing from the media reports has been the new thrust of US foreign policy towards Southeast Asia — vaccine diplomacy. After the announcement on June 10 of President Joe Biden’s “historic action” outlining the US plan to donate 500 million doses of vaccine to 93 low- and middle-income countries, it was clear that Washington will use vaccines as a new diplomatic tool to win the hearts and minds of nearly half of the members of the United Nations.
At the meeting, Blinken emphasized that Washington will lead global efforts to fight COVID-19. Up to last week, the US had donated US$2 billion of the committed $4 billion for the Covax program, which covers 500 million shots. Covax is a program administrated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide vaccines to developing countries. Blinken also detailed the US vaccine strategy to allocate 80 million doses globally by the end of June. Out of the first batch of 25 million doses, 7 million of them are for Asia including ASEAN members. Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia are the recipients.
According to the Ministry of Public Health, Thailand will receive 1.5 million doses of Pfizer from the US as part of this plan, even though the country is not part of Covax. The delivery is expected later this month. Other ASEAN countries have received their vaccines as pledged. Washington also earmarked $96 million for ASEAN to shore up the bloc’s capacity to fight the pandemic.
With the increasing severity of the pandemic in the region, vaccine diplomacy has now become one of the US’s most effective diplomatic tools. Kurt Campbell, White House Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, emphasized that Southeast Asia is the heart of Asia and can determine the success or failure of US diplomacy. Therefore, he said recently at an event organized by the Asia Society, the US needs to pay attention and take tangible action. One of them, he reiterated, is through vaccine diplomacy or engagement.
As far as the distribution of vaccines is concerned, the US is catching up even though it is still trailing behind China. According to a new tally compiled by Kyodo, China has supplied or plans to supply 120 million coronavirus vaccine doses to ASEAN members, around 4.8 times the number allocated for the region by the US and European countries through the Covax facility.
At the upcoming ASEAN annual meeting, dialogue partners are expected to reaffirm their commitment to provide vaccines to help alleviate the high demand for jabs in the member countries due to recent surges caused by the Delta variant. On its own, ASEAN has already allotted $10 million to Unicef on its behalf to procure vaccines under the Covax program for needy ASEAN members. The money comes from the $25-million ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, a Thai initiative set up in 2020. Apart from contributions from ASEAN members, key dialogue partners also chipped in.
On the situation in Myanmar, Blinken understood the ASEAN mood and reiterated US support for the bloc’s five-point consensus saying that it is an important step forward. He also called on ASEAN to take immediate action and hold the military regime accountable for its actions. After a lengthy delay, ASEAN will soon name a special envoy. One senior ASEAN official commented that the US is still in wait-and-see mode, quietly assessing the bloc’s efforts to engage with the Myanmar crisis.
Apart from the above key issues, Blinken also proposed closer cooperation in various fields such as energy, transport, women’s empowerment, the environment, and climate change. In response to the US positions, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai welcomed the US’s role in the region and underscored that ASEAN could serve as a central point where key players could reconnect and promote win-win cooperation. He also welcomed the “Build Back Better” initiative and the US climate change agendas, and proposed that the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economy model could be a possible area for collaboration.
It is interesting to note that when Blinken referred to Mekong sub-region cooperation under the ASEAN-US Partnership, he referred to it as “free and open Mekong”. It was the first time that a senior US official has linked the Mekong sub-region to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. So far, there has not been any reaction from the Mekong riparian countries.
One caveat is in order. The lower riparian countries have strong identities and cultural ties, and they are very proud of their region and homegrown wisdom. So they want to retain their narratives. Over the years, they have forged closer cooperation among themselves. With increased rivalry between the US and China, they also have reinvigorated their decades-old regional framework to promote intra-Mekong cooperation in all areas including investment and connectivity.
Most importantly, they also seek to promote regional norms and standards within the Mekong region, to improve the standards of living and well being of the Mekong people. Above all, they are also committed to resisting any hegemonic tendencies coming from external powers.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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