Sharon Seah

Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme and ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Sharon Seah is a senior fellow and the coordinator of the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme at the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

US President Joe Biden (centre) with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on 12 May 2022. (Michael Reynolds/Bloomberg)

US-ASEAN summit: Washington still has an uphill climb

The US hit all the right notes when it hosted ASEAN leaders in Washington last week. The fact remains, however, that Washington has an uphill climb if it wants to catch up with Beijing’s economic momentum in Southeast Asia. Not only that, Southeast Asian countries understand that in the end, it would be every man for himself.
Activists from Greenpeace Indonesia take part in a rally with an ice-made effigy and postcards to Indonesian President Joko Widodo calling for action on climate change in Jakarta on 10 November 2021, as world leaders attend the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. (Adek Berry/AFP)

US and China not perceived as climate change leaders in Southeast Asia

Although geopolitics is encroaching onto climate change discussions, a poll shows that Southeast Asians remain objective and pragmatic. Achieving climate goals in the region depends on realpolitik and ASEAN leaders’ shrewdness in tapping resources from all major powers.
People participate in a rally during a global day of action on climate change in Manila on 6 November 2021, as world leaders attend the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. (Maria Tan/AFP)

China and US could work on building clean and green BRI and Build Back Better World (B3W)

The 26th Conference of Parties in Glasgow (COP26) concluded with several high-level political pledges delivered, but it is another matter if they will be followed through. For the Southeast Asian region, Indonesian commitments to the phase down of fossil fuel subsidies and the global goal to end deforestation by 2030 will be critical. The broken promise of climate finance may also affect several Southeast Asian countries' ability to see through their pledges. China's climate leadership on the phasing out of coal has taken a hit but amid the gloom, there are some bright spots, not least China and the US finally finding some common ground.
Wind turbines at the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm in Whitewater, California, U.S., 3 June 2021. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg)

US-China competition in climate cooperation a good thing for Southeast Asia

The US is back in the international climate cooperation game, but the influence it will have remains to be seen. Its passing of a new omnibus package which includes major energy provisions to address climate change provides hope that partisan divides are not insurmountable. On China’s part, its 14th Five-Year Plan demonstrates strong impetus to tackle climate change issues. As for ASEAN, the ASEAN-China Strategy on Environmental Cooperation papers has enabled cooperation with China to progress well, but cooperation with the US can be improved with an institutional framework to bring climate cooperation to a higher level.