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Biden welcomes leaders of Southeast Asian nations for special ASEAN summit

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As the Biden administration works to isolate Russia internationally, it's also continuing its efforts to counter an increasingly assertive China. This week's special summit in Washington between the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is one example. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Southeast Asia didn't get much love from the Trump administration. The Biden team has tried to do better. Vice President Harris and other high-ranking officials made visits last summer. But lately, that effort has taken a back seat to more pressing issues.

YUN SUN: I mean, it ain't broken. And it's also not the most important strategic region in the world. So for the U.S. foreign strategy, there is always going to be the competing agenda.

SULLIVAN: Yun Sun directs the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

SUN: Last summer, that agenda was Afghanistan. And this year, the agenda is the war in Ukraine. So unfortunately, it really pushes Southeast Asia to a less important status.

SULLIVAN: A Southeast Asia whose response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been largely muted, in a region where China's influence and assertiveness continues to grow in disputed territories it claims as its own.

BILAHARI KAUSIKAN: They haven't stopped doing what they are doing in the South China Sea. They haven't stopped what they are doing in the East China Sea. They haven't stopped what they are doing in Taiwan Strait. And in the Himalayas, you know, they have not pulled back their troops to the previous line of actual control.

SULLIVAN: That's former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who says all of this hasn't gone unnoticed in Southeast Asia.

KAUSIKAN: One of the points about war in Ukraine is that it has underscored the importance of regional balances and the role of the U.S., the vital and irreplaceable role of the U.S. in such regional balances.

SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Bangkok's Institute of Security and International Studies, isn't so sure.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: People are questioning whether the U.S. has the resources to engage on three ocean fronts, and not just Indo-Pacific, but also back in the Atlantic alliance, in Europe, with Russia. And so I think that maybe the Biden administration is reassuring the ASEAN countries that, hey, they still want to engage and, you know, it is on track. But, in fact, around here in the region, there are some question marks about the U.S. long-term commitment and resolve.

SULLIVAN: But Bilahari Kausikan says that's nothing new. The U.S. has been distracted for decades, he says, with wars in Iraq and, most recently, in its abrupt departure from Afghanistan.

KAUSIKAN: I was in the U.S. last August when Afghanistan happened, right? And I was specifically asked by American interlocutors, what does this mean? Are we reliable? Do you consider us reliable? And my reply has always been very simple. I have never considered you very reliable, but you are indispensable. And so the question of your reliability is moot. And that is pretty much the situation today.

SULLIVAN: And even though Southeast Asian nations thought to be firmly in China's orbit already - Cambodia and Laos, for example - aren't comfortable with the arrangement, he argues, which is why it makes sense for the U.S. to engage even with countries, like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, with strong authoritarian governments.

PHIL ROBERTSON: This is where realpolitik meets other aspects of U.S. foreign policy, particularly on issues where American values of rights, fair play and democracy should also prevail.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

ROBERTSON: What we've seen is a very significant backsliding in the region on these issues of human rights. This was happening before the pandemic, but it has accelerated since then.

SULLIVAN: Robertson hopes the U.S. will push these countries on these issues, but he's doubtful that will happen. But he does hope for some sort of consensus on restoring civilian rule in Myanmar - excluded from this summit because of last year's coup.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Chiang Rai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.