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As US-China strategic rivalry in the Indo-Pacific intensifies, regional multilateral forums will be critical in the competition for influence and indispensable for a successful US regional strategy. Importantly, in its first year, the Biden Administration has attended key meetings — redressing the worst of the Trump Administration’s neglect. Yet it still has considerable ground to make up — Beijing has invested assiduously in regional institutions to its advantage in recent years. It devotes considerable energy towards regularly establishing new dialogues and cooperative mechanisms. In 2021, it upgraded ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and hosted a summit with Xi Jinping, rather than Premier Li Keqiang, for the first time.
The United States needs to meet this challenge by articulating a new strategy for regional institutions — including its relationship with ASEAN and its participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) — to maximise its regional influence. This should be pursued in parallel with cooperation in narrower groupings such as the Quad. A failure to do so would cede strategic advantage to China and contribute to the further erosion of inclusive multilateral institutions in which all countries have a voice.
These questions matter to Australia. For the past 30 years, Australia has supported inclusive regional security and economic architecture, in part for its role in entrenching the United States in the region. This has succeeded, with Australia playing a role in the establishment of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and supporting the expansion of the EAS to include the United States, all of which helped focus Washington’s attention on Asia.
This report examines the evolution of US interests in key Asian regional multilateral groupings throughout the Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump Administrations. It argues that two key interests, namely commitment to advancing regional economic integration, and to deepening political-security cooperation through regional institutions, have evolved substantially since the 1990s. Three enduring pragmatic rationales should continue to drive US participation: the opportunity to advance the administration’s own regional narrative and preferred norms; the need to prevent China from exclusively dominating regional groups; and the chance to focus administration resources and priorities towards the Indo-Pacific. The report makes recommendations for how the Biden Administration can best harness the potential of these groupings to advance a successful Indo-Pacific strategy.