Interview: U.S. struggles in its engagement with ASEAN -- Malaysian analyst

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 22 (Xinhua) -- U.S. attempts to solicit support from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are being hampered by the limited scope of Washington's engagement and a lack of meaningful alternatives, a Malaysian political analyst said.

These challenges mean that U.S. plans, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), will struggle to find traction among the 10-member ASEAN bloc, said Lee Pei May, a political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia, in a recent interview with Xinhua.

Even the U.S. administration thinks the IPEF "is still a work in progress. So basically, they have no full plan as to what they can truly offer to ASEAN," she said, noting that it's not a surprise that the U.S. always has such grand plans to engage with different parts of the world.

Lee also noted that the perceived divisive and combative tone of the IPEF is compounded by uncertainty over the long term if the policy would outlast U.S. President Joe Biden's administration.

"This framework is going to exclude China, or it will be perceived by ASEAN as an anti-China move and therefore, this actually puts ASEAN in a very awkward position ... can the U.S. truly exclude China by building an alternative supply chain? I don't think it's possible. I doubt that," she said.

"This will be a challenge for the Biden administration to tell people: 'Come join me and you're going to benefit, you're going to reap the real benefits from me ...' we need to consider if Biden is not elected in the next election, will this economic framework last? So this is something that I think is an obstacle for the U.S.," she added.

Lee noted that while the United States had made much of its recent summit with ASEAN, it has failed to draw these states into its camp and is struggling to re-build ties in the region after neglecting it during the Donald Trump administration.

"It's not very persuasive and convincing because even if the U.S. wants to re-engage with Southeast Asian countries, I feel it's very difficult to achieve deeper engagement with just two days of a meeting and some goodies offered to ASEAN," she said.

"That's why when you look at the joint statement by the U.S. and ASEAN, basically, it's a very neutral position coming out from the statement," she added.

Lee said the summit and the offer of 150 million U.S. dollars for assisting the ASEAN coast guard units and climate change would just be the first step in U.S. engagement, but this may not derail ASEAN countries to abandon their neutrality and centrality.

"Is this something that ASEAN countries need at this point or is it actually what the U.S. wants? No matter how nicely the offer was packaged to seem like it is for ASEAN in reality, it's to serve the U.S. goal," she said.

"Therefore, if the U.S. is sincere, to re-engage with ASEAN countries, I think they first need to consult and ask ASEAN what kind of assistance actually ASEAN hopes to receive," she added. Enditem

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