President Joe Biden is facing criticism after skipping out on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Indonesia on Tuesday, sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead.
Harris is scheduled to spend two days in meetings while at the ASEAN gathering in Jakarta amid concerns of conflicts in the South China Sea, internal struggles in Myanmar, and increasing tension between the U.S. and China, ABC News reported. While some ASEAN members have sought closer ties with the U.S., others, like Cambodia, have turned more fully to China, according to Politico.
Wheels down just after 10p local time: @VP Kamala Harris arrives in Jakarta ahead of meetings with leaders from ASEAN countries this week, her 4th visit to the Indo-Pacific in two years pic.twitter.com/0JQLYOKg87
— Richard Escobedo (@RichardEscobedo) September 5, 2023
Biden’s decision not to attend the meeting in Jakarta was slammed by critics as a “missed opportunity” to improve diplomatic ties with Indonesia, which boasts ASEAN’s largest economy, VOA reported. Biden’s absence is all the more glaring since Jakarta officials reportedly took steps to align ASEAN’s meeting calendar with Biden’s planned travel to the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, in an effort to secure his attendance, the outlet stated. (RELATED: Biden Mixes Up His Countries And Continents Again On Trip To Regional Summit)
Indonesia is believed to be leaning more towards China’s sphere of influence as the country’s president, Joko Widodo, has indicated “economic diplomacy” will be his primary foreign policy goal, VOA reported.
“The absence of the U.S. president, while it is disappointing and symbolically significant, is for me the least of the worry because what’s more worrisome actually is the more fundamental structural tendency for ASEAN to become less and less prominent,” Marty Natalegawa, former foreign minister of Indonesia, said of Biden’s decision, according to Politico.
“We can complain all we want about other countries not respecting us or not coming to our summits,” Natalegawa added, according to ABC News. “But ultimately, it is actually a point of reflection.”
“I don’t fault the administration for the choice that they made. It’s just unfortunate that they had to make that choice,” Gregory B. Poling, who directs the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News of the decision to send Harris.
Karishma Vaswani, BBC’s Asia Business Correspondent, observed that Harris’ attendance to the ASEAN summit must feel like a “consolation prize” for Indonesia. Furthermore, Biden’s “snub” of Indonesia, a major regional power, wouldn’t work to improve relations with the country particularly since the U.S. has repeatedly declared it wished to build stronger ties to the region, Vaswani continued.
National Security spokesman John Kirby rejected claims that Biden had snubbed Indonesia with his decision to send Harris, pointing out that the president hosted a first-ever meeting with ASEAN leaders in Washington in 2022, ABC News reported.
“[Vice President Harris] will not shy away from talking about our responsibilities as a Pacific power,” Kirby assured VOA. “Five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Indo-Pacific region, and so the vice president will certainly make it clear that the United States takes those responsibilities seriously.”