WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden said Friday that a first summit in Washington with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks the launch of a “new era” in relations 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 move their relationship from a strategic partnership to a ” comprehensive strategic partnership” in November.
Regarding Ukraine, they reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity”, a formulation which, according to a regional expert, went further than past ASEAN declarations. The statement did not specifically condemn Russia for its Feb. 24 invasion.
The summit marked the first meeting of ASEAN leaders as a group in Washington and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.
The Biden administration hopes this effort will show that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it sees as its main competitor, despite the invasion of Ukraine. by Russia.
He also hoped to persuade ASEAN countries to toughen their stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Biden told ASEAN leaders that “much of the history of our world over the next 50 years is going to be written in ASEAN countries, and our relationship with you is the future, in years and decades to come.
Biden called the U.S.-ASEAN partnership “critical” and said, “We are launching a new era – a new era – in U.S.-ASEAN relations.”
Vice President Kamala Harris said the US will stay in Southeast Asia for ‘generations’ and stressed the need to maintain the freedom of the seas, which the US says is being contested by China .
“The United States and ASEAN have shared a vision for this region, and together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms,” Harris said.
Neither she nor Biden mentioned China by name. The United States has accused China of using coercion against its neighbors.
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 address infrastructure needs in a sustainable way.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar’s leader was barred from the summit following a coup last year. US treaty ally the Philippines, in transition from 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 pledged $150 million for areas including infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and clean energy.
CHINESE RIVALRY, SHARED CONCERNS
New US commitments will include deploying a Coast Guard vessel to the region to help counter what the US and regional countries have described as China’s illegal fishing.
Yet U.S. spending pales in comparison to China, which in November alone pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN over three years to fight the COVID and fueling the economic recovery.
Biden on Friday announced the appointment of Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff of his National Security Council, as ambassador to ASEAN, filling a position that has been vacant since the start of Donald Trump’s administration in 2017. Biden is working on other initiatives including “Build Back Investments in Better World Infrastructure and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the summit was largely about symbolism, with the economy a missing element, as the ‘IPEF is not expected to launch until Biden’s visit to Japan later in May.
“Everyone seems happy and the diplomatic message of engagement is landing. But…a modest, to put it mildly, $150 million isn’t going to impress anyone,” he said. “That leaves a lot of room for IPEF.”
The escalation of the relationship towards a comprehensive strategic partnership matches similar steps ASEAN took with Australia and China last year.
“It’s symbolically important, even though it wouldn’t change much concretely,” Poling said.
He noted that the statement on Ukraine did not condemn Russia by name, but said that “the call for respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity is a clear criticism of Russia and would apparently commit all ASEAN leaders never to recognize any Russian annexation to Ukraine.”
ASEAN countries share many U.S. concerns about China’s assertiveness, including its claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea where several have rival claims.
However, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties to China and limited US economic incentives. Some, like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, have residual historical ties to Russia.
ASEAN states have been frustrated by US delay in presenting detailed economic engagement plans since Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017. Biden announced plans to create IPEF at a summit virtual meeting with ASEAN leaders in October.
Analysts and diplomats have said only two ASEAN countries – Singapore and the Philippines – are expected to be in the initial group to sign up for negotiations under IPEF, which currently does not offer access. expanded to the market that Asian nations want given Biden’s concern for American jobs.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina, Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt and Simon Lewis; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Nick Zieminski, Will Dunham, Daniel Wallis and William Mallard)