US hails ‘new era’ with Asean

Building ties: Biden speaking at the Special Summit with Asean leaders at the US State Department in Washington DC. — Reuters

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden said a first summit in Washington with leaders from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) marked the launch of a “new era” in the relationship between the United States and the 10-nation bloc.

In a joint 28-point “vision statement” after a two-day meeting, the two sides took what analysts called a symbolic step of committing to raise their relationship from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November.

On Ukraine they reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity,” wording that a regional expert said went further than past Asean statements. The statement did not condemn Russia by name for its Feb 24 invasion.

The summit marked the first time Asean leaders gathered as a group in Washington and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.

Biden’s administration hopes the effort will show that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it views as its main competitor, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He was also hoping to persuade Asean countries to toughen their stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden told Asean leaders that “a great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written in the Asean countries, and our relationship with you is the future, in the coming years and decades.”

Biden called the US-Asean partnership “critical” and said: “We’re launching a new era – a new era – in US-Asean relations.”

Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would remain in South-East Asia for “generations” and stressed the need to maintain freedom of the seas.

Harris said Washington would continue to respond with Asean to the threat of Covid-19, having already donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region.

She said both sides needed to show collective ambition on climate change, accelerate the transition to clean energy, and meet infrastructure needs sustainably.

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar’s leader was excluded from the summit over a coup last year.

US treaty ally the Philippines, in transition after an election, was represented at the meeting by its foreign minister.

Biden hosted a summit dinner at the White House on Thursday, and his administration promised US$150mil (RM660mil) for infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and clean energy.

New US commitments will include deployment of a Coast Guard vessel to the region.

Still, US spending pales in comparison to that of China, which in November alone pledged US$1.5bil (RM6.6bil) in development assistance for Asean over three years to fight Covid-19 and fuel economic recovery.

Biden on Friday announced the nomination of Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff on his National Security Council, to be ambassador to Asean, filling a post vacant since the start of Donald Trump’s administration in 2017. Biden is working on other initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

Gregory Poling, a South-East Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the summit was largely about symbolism with economics a missing component, as IPEF is not expected to be launched until Biden visits Japan later in May.

“Everyone seems happy and the diplomatic message of commitment is landing. But ... a modest, to put it kindly, US$150mil isn’t going to impress anyone,” he said. “That leaves a lot riding on IPEF.” — Reuters

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