Global diplomacy in September will be dominated by the G20 leadership event in India on Sept. 9-10. Yet, below that international radar screen are key East Asia and Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits a few days earlier. While the ASEAN and East Asia events in Indonesia are lower profile than the G20, the nations of the former – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – are fast becoming a key target of diplomacy for foreign nations outside the Asia-Pacific, including those in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Little wonder, perhaps, in today’s frenzied geopolitics when the group has a population of over 600 million covering an area of 1.7 million square miles.
ASEAN also has a purchasing power parity and gross domestic product of over $10 trillion that is growing significantly. International interest in the area is shown by the fact that the UN Conference on Trade and Development tabled ASEAN’s foreign direct investment inflow for 2022 as having grown by 5 percent year on year in 2022, to a total of $224 billion, a record high and bucking the trend in various parts of the world amid the 12 percent overall decline of global FDI in the same year. Of course, ASEAN has frequently engaged other countries in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. It is a major partner of international bodies such as the UN, Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Southern Common Market, or Mercosur, and maintains a global network of alliances and dialogue partners.
However, the attention of foreign suitors outside the Asia-Pacific is growing fast and includes the US, which has attended the East Asia summits since 2011. US Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the upcoming events in Indonesia, building from last year’s US-ASEAN summit in Cambodia, in which President Joe Biden participated. It was at the latter event that ASEAN leaders elevated relations with the US to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This underlines how the Biden team has overseen a huge expansion in US-ASEAN relations, including the launch of five new high-level dialogue processes on health, transportation, women’s empowerment, environment and climate, and energy, as well as greater engagement in existing dialogue tracks on foreign affairs, economics and defense.
The US is also stepping up its diplomatic profile by providing significant monetary assistance to ASEAN, with $860 million in 2022 alone, through the State Department and US Agency for International Development.
This aid is supporting joint forums in areas such as climate ambition and clean energy transition, access to education, strengthened health systems, security modernization efforts, rule of law and human rights. Outside of North America, the EU also last year held its first summit with ASEAN. The EU and ASEAN have been dialogue partners since 1977 and, following a EU-ASEAN ministerial meeting in 2020, opened a new chapter by becoming strategic partners. This has seen the bilateral relationship flourish across three main platforms: political and security cooperation; economic collaboration; and sociocultural cooperation, which includes higher education, health, disaster management and preparedness, biodiversity protection and the effective management of protected areas, sustainable urbanization and sustainable agriculture.
Trade and investment relations, for example, have grown considerably during the last decade. The EU is ASEAN’s third-largest trading partner, accounting for over 10 percent of trade. Meanwhile, ASEAN is the EU’s third-largest trading partner outside Europe. The bloc is also the biggest investor in ASEAN countries. Moving to the dynamic Middle East regions, nations such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also engaging ASEAN nations. The UAE last year signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and obtained sectoral dialogue partner status, paving the way for enhanced trade and investment cooperation, and laying the groundwork for strategic partnerships in pursuit of mutual and regional prosperity.
The UAE has said the country is constructing a “corridor of opportunity” between GCC states and Southeast Asia. A key part of this is fast-tracking negotiations on comprehensive economic partnership agreements with Southeast Asian states to maintain the UAE’s status as a leading trading partner in the Middle East. Inevitably, in this hugely competitive context, other Asian powers are doubling down on their own engagement with ASEAN. While China is often singled out here, others, including G20 host India, are also ramping up their diplomacy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now considering changing his plans so he can fly to Indonesia for a short visit on Sept. 6, and return to India the following day just before the G20 summit, which he is hosting. Earlier, New Delhi officials said his schedule was making it difficult for him to attend the meetings in Jakarta since he needs to return in time for the arrival of the G20 leaders. Any Modi visit to Indonesia will reaffirm India’s ties with ASEAN soon after the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations, where ties were raised to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Modi also hopes to review plans for a potential free trade agreement. These examples showcase how foreign powers are gearing up for greater engagement with ASEAN. The vast region is a growing priority for powers outside the Asia-Pacific trying to steal a competitive march on regional giants, such as China and India, and drive economic and political advantage in the mid-2020s and beyond.