With China in focus, Biden pledges $150m to ASEAN leaders

With China in focus, Biden pledges 0m to ASEAN leaders

WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden opened a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders by pledging to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at curbing the impact of the to counter rival China.

On Thursday, Biden began a two-day summit with the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington with a dinner for leaders at the White House before talks at the State Department on Friday.

Biden smiled widely as he took a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House before dinner with representatives from Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the agenda, Biden’s administration hopes the effort will show countries Washington remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge posed by China, which it sees as the country’s main competitor.

In November alone, China pledged US$1.5 billion in development assistance over three years to ASEAN countries to fight COVID and spur economic recovery.

“We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior US government official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. However, we want to make it clear that the United States seeks a stronger relationship.”

The new financial commitment includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure designed to help decarbonize the region’s power supply and $60 million in maritime security, as well as approximately $15 million in health funds to support early detection of COVID-19 and other respiratory pandemics official said. Additional funds will help countries develop legislation on the digital economy and artificial intelligence.

The US Coast Guard will also deploy a vessel to the region to help local fleets counter what Washington and countries in the region have described as China’s illegal fishing.

Still, the commitments pale in comparison to China’s deep connections and influence.

Biden is working on other initiatives including Build Back Better World infrastructure investments and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But both are not complete.

The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have gathered as a group at the White House and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to attend the talks. Myanmar’s leader was expelled over a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election, although Biden spoke to the country’s president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday. The country was represented by its Secretary of State in the White House.

ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill for a luncheon with congressional leaders on Thursday.

CONCERN ABOUT CHINA

The countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.

China’s assertion of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea has pitted it against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts.

However, countries in the region have also been frustrated by a US delay in formulating plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump canceled a regional trade deal in 2017.

“The US should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the US economically and strategically,” Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Thursday. Continue reading

The IPEF is scheduled to be rolled out on Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week. However, given Biden’s concerns about American jobs, it doesn’t currently offer the expanded market access that Asian countries are craving.

Analysts say that ASEAN countries, while sharing US concerns about China, remain wary of siding more with Washington given their prevailing economic ties with Beijing and limited US economic stimulus.

Kao Kim Hourn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters the country will not “choose” between Washington and Beijing despite increasing US investment in his country. Continue reading

On Wednesday, Hun Sen was the target of a shoe-throwing protester ahead of his first visit to the White House of his tenure, which began in 1985. The Cambodian leader has been criticized by activists for suppressing dissent. Continue reading

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Simon Lewis and Doina Chiacu; Edited by Mary Milliken, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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