The White House Welcomed a “Dictator Club”

President Joe Biden welcomes ASEAN leaders to the White House for the 2022 U.S. – ASEAN Special Summit

Washington, D.C., –the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were welcomed to the White House for the Special U.S. – ASEAN Summit on May 12-13, 2022.

It marked the 45th anniversary of the ASEAN-U.S. relations. It is the second Special Summit since 2016 and the first in person meeting since 2017.

Founded in 1967 in Bangkok, the founding fathers were Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. More countries joined the membership – Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1984, Laos FDR and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999, making up the 10-member states today. The ASEAN charter is a legally-binding international agreement, registered with United Nations in 2008 and aims to secure peace, neutrality, cooperation, boost the economic and cultural development and trades.

Vice President Kamala Harris holds a meeting with the ASEAN leaders. State Depart. Photo

The two days program were packed with activities from working lunch with house speaker Nancy Palosi, to meeting with business leaders about economic cooperation, to having dinner at the White House with President Joe Biden.

The next day, the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinkin hosted a meeting with the member states. They discussed maritime cooperation, pandemic recovery, climate changes. The summit ended with a meeting with President Biden for two hours and Biden meeting individual member state for a brief “private chat”.

Myanmar was not invited to the Special Summit as result of the country’s military coup in Feb. 2021 which ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The NUG representative also was not invited but they met the Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and this was viewed as a progress, according to the group.

Philippines also did not join the Summit as the eldest son of former President Ferdinand Marcos is in the midst of a Presidential election. How the U.S. relations with Philippines is still to be seen. President Rodrigo Duterte cited because “it’s a matter of principles.”

Cambodia PM Hun Sen speaks with Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh. State Depart Photo.

Cambodia’s dictator Hun Sen, as chairman of the ASEAN, was invited to the White House regardless after he ousted his opponent the CNRP ahead of the 2018 election and took all seats. Cambodia had joined the rank of the single party ruled ASEAN member states including Vietnam, Laos, and Brunei. The group has become a “dictator club” over the years as the majority of member are now made up of single-party states. Vietnam’s poor human rights and single party rule contribute the further erosion of democracy in Laos and Cambodia, causing the de-stabilization of the ASEAN.

Vietnam Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính shakes hands with Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Shermon

However, The United States has a bigger concern. China is the United States’ biggest existential treat as a superpower in Southeast Asia. And Vietnam has been chosen (again) to be an ally in the economic proxy war against China. The strengthening ties between the U.S. and Vietnam is obvious as Vice President Kamila Harris made trip to Vietnam in early months after Biden took the office, and during this 2-days conference, Vietnam was the major player. Hun Sen was on the other hand quietly casted aside. Cambodia has lost the BBA status due his record of human rights violations in 2020 and it was given to Vietnam at very same year despite its communist rule.

In the same way that that Russia tried to take over Ukraine by installing a puppet government, Vietnam installed Hun Sen government after invading Cambodia in 1979 and has been successful in using his regime to divert attention and instead benefit Vietnam, including its economy, its international standing and relations.

When the Trump Administration imposed a 25% tax tariff on China with combination of covid-19 pandemic caused the shortage of supply chain, the inflation in the U.S. went up to over 8%, highest it has seen in the last 40 years.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Vietnam Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính and his entourage. State Depart. Photo.

The United States needs the economic partnership with the ASEAN in order to balance the power with China, especially since Vietnam admission to tax preferred status in 2020, Vietnam has become the competitor of China, given its human capital 97.34 million people, third largest population in the ASEAN after Indonesia and Philippines. According the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. goods and services trade with ASEAN is $362.2 billion in 2020, still only halfway in comparing to China.

As the Biden administration try to define its role in the ASEAN in this fast changing economic and political climate in Asia, the US has taken a lead on doing business with “smaller dictators” against the “big brother” – a lesson that the United States never seemed to learn from the failing track records in Iraq, Syria, and other countries.