The Glitch That Ruined Blinken’s ASEAN Debut

The Glitch That Ruined Blinken’s ASEAN Debut

On May 25, Southeast Asian foreign ministers gathered in front of their computers for what was to be the first formal encounter with the Biden administration’s top diplomat, a virtual ministerial summit with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But Blinken never appeared.

The United States was unable to secure a video connection for Blinken, who was boarding his plane in Shannon, Ireland, for a red-eye trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, the first leg of an emergency trip to the Middle East to try preserving the shaky cease-fire ending weeks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The episode rankled some of the ministers, who viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign the Americans had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and the United States was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.

Southeast Asia’s top diplomatic corps waited fruitlessly on the call for 45 minutes, diplomatic sources said. The incident reinforced a nagging feeling U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, which has sought to elevate the importance of repairing alliances as part of its effort to compete with China for global influence, is sidelining the region.

A suggestion before the meeting that Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, might have to fill in for Blinken only made matters worse, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the incident. The same source said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was so upset she never turned on her video feed during the meeting. “The Indonesians wanted a proper respectful meeting at foreign minister’s leave—but not by his deputy,” the diplomatic source said. At the time of publication, the Indonesian Embassy in Washington had not responded to a request for comment.

U.S. officials insisted no snub was intended and they had worked intensively over the previous weeks to make the meeting happen despite resistance from Myanmar’s military regime, which holds that country’s seat at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Blinken, they noted, had been prepared to work late into the night to address his Southeast Asian counterparts even as he prepared for a round of crisis diplomacy in the Middle East. U.S. State Department staff delivered a profuse apology to the ministers on behalf of Blinken. A follow-up ministerial meeting has been rescheduled for next week.

“The administration is committed to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN’s essential role in the Indo-Pacific architecture,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Foreign Policy. “That commitment is reflected in more than a dozen high-level calls and in-person meetings.”

“The White House takes our engagement with ASEAN very seriously,” said a National Security Council spokesperson, who pointed to a series of high-level meetings the United States has planned in the near future with ASEAN on a range of issues. “We’ve said it from the earliest days of the administration, when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan virtually met with ASEAN ambassadors, and it remains true today: The Biden administration is committed to expanding U.S. engagement with ASEAN.”

The latest incident follows a long history of bruised Southeast Asian diplomatic sensitivities. A succession of U.S. presidents dating back to George H. W. Bush left the impression they were granting the region short shrift, said Joshua Kurlantzick, an expert on the region at the Council on Foreign Relations. Biden has yet to have an official phone conversation with one of ASEAN’s 10 leaders, though other top administration officials have.

“I think there is frustration,” Kurlantzik said. “They probably had higher hopes because Biden made a theme of his campaign restoring relations with allies. They probably expected more.”

For its part, the administration may have had cause for frustration with the Southeast Asian regional group, which has proven ill equipped to handle the crisis in Myanmar and has reserved a seat in its organization for the country’s military coup plotters. “From the U.S. point of view, it’s been pretty useless and hasn’t done anything,” Kurlantzick told Foreign Policy.

The White House and State Department sought to drive home the message to Foreign Policy that they have been deeply engaged with ASEAN, even if the president has yet to speak directly to their leaders.

Biden invited three leaders from ASEAN to participate in his Earth Day climate summit while State Department officials noted how Blinken has spoken with seven of the 10 ASEAN members. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin planned to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, though the meeting was cancelled in response to the global COVID-19 crisis. And Sherman’s first major trip abroad includes stops in the region and meetings with top ASEAN officials.

“I think this administration is trying,” said Alexander Feldman, chairperson, president and CEO of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which promotes U.S. trade with Southeast Asian countries. “There has been some engagement. Could there be more? Sure.”

“But I don’t disagree that in Southeast Asia, there’s a feeling that we’re not paying enough attention, that they’re not getting enough love,” Feldman added.

Blinken’s absence highlighted how new crises in the Middle East could interrupt the Biden administration’s pivot to Asia, as the schedule of the United States’ top diplomat became consumed by another Israel-Palestine crisis the administration hadn’t planned or prepared for.

The meeting’s timing clashed with Blinken’s travel to the Middle East, hastily scheduled so he could ensure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas would hold as well as assure Israelis and Palestinians the United States was committed to a peaceful outcome. The session started as Blinken was embarking on a red-eye flight from Shannon, Ireland, to Tel Aviv, Israel. But the Americans attributed the breakdown to the communications platform deployed by ASEAN, which was plagued with glitches and resulted in the video connection dropping altogether.

The ministers on the line could only hear audio from U.S. staffers cutting in and out as they tried to make the connection, according to the diplomatic source. But State Department officials challenged that account, saying Blinken offered a few words by audio, including an apology for the technical difficulties, before the other ministers proposed rescheduling the meeting when they could secure a video feed.

This isn’t the first U.S. diplomatic move that has rankled U.S.-ASEAN relations in recent years. Though insisting he wanted to rally regional partners to counter growing Chinese influence abroad, former U.S. President Donald Trump skipped two annual ASEAN summits in 2018 and 2019, leaving China and Russia to take center stage at the meetings. The decision not to attend twice in a row angered ASEAN countries.

“The Trump administration had repeatedly snubbed ASEAN,” said one congressional aide speaking on condition of anonymity. “So this unfortunate technical snafu risks raising questions among ASEAN members about the Biden administration’s interest in engaging ASEAN like an equal partner.”

The ASEAN countries were offended anew, this time by the Biden administration, in March, when officials left Thailand and the Philippines off a list of U.S. allies published in the president’s interim strategic guidance for U.S. foreign policy. That document will inform the White House’s revamped 2022 National Security Strategy. Some of the frustration has since cooled: The Philippines appears to be nearing an extension on a deal underpinning U.S. troop presence there.

The ASEAN summit took on increased importance in the wake of unrest in Myanmar following its military coup in February. A senior U.N. envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, warned this week Myanmar could erupt into civil war in the wake of a deadly crackdown on protesters by its military junta, which has killed an estimated 800 people. She urged ASEAN to help open diplomatic channels between the military coup leaders and other groups in Myanmar to try and avert a conflict.

Back in January, the ASEAN foreign ministers began pressing the Biden administration to hold an early meeting with the group. The following month, the Biden administration proposed a virtual meeting of foreign ministers. But Myanmar’s military regime, which seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, stalled preparations and began pressing, along with Cambodia and Laos, for a meeting with China first.

ASEAN ministers plan to meet in person with China’s top diplomat in June. Myanmar’s representative for foreign affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, is said to have chuckled when the postponement was announced.

“This is embarrassing but not fatal to our friends in the administration who we in the region still want to engage [with],” said the diplomatic source. “But frankly, they shouldn’t hand it to China on a platter.”