May 13, 2022 5:14:07 p.m.
US President Joe Biden opened a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders with a pledge to spend $150 million on infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts to counter influence of rival China.
On Thursday, Biden kicked off a two-day summit with the Association of 10 Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington with a dinner for leaders at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday, reports Reuters.
Biden smiled broadly 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.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large, Biden administration hopes efforts will show nations Washington remains focused on Indo-Pacific and China’s long-term challenge , which it considers to be the country’s main competitor.
Responding to Biden’s latest move, China’s foreign ministry said it welcomes any cooperation that promotes sustainable development and prosperity in the region.
“China and ASEAN do not engage in zero-sum games or promote bloc confrontation,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Friday.
In November alone, China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries over three years to fight COVID and fuel economic recovery.
“We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior US administration official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. We do, however, want to make it clear that the United States is looking for a stronger relationship.”
The new financial commitment includes an investment of $40 million in infrastructure to help decarbonize the region’s power supply and $60 million in maritime security, as well as some $15 million in health funding for help in the early detection of COVID-19 and other respiratory pandemics, an official said. Additional funding will help countries develop laws 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 regional countries have described as China’s illegal fishing.
Yet the commitments pale in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence.
Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Building a Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither is finalized.
The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have met 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 ousted following 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 his Foreign Secretary at the White House.
ASEAN leaders also traveled to the Capitol on Thursday for a lunch with congressional leaders.
CONCERN OVER CHINA
The countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.
China’s assertion of sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea has pitted it against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts.
Yet countries in the region have also been frustrated by the United States’ delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.
“The United States should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the United States economically and strategically,” Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Thursday.
The IPEF is expected to be launched during Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week. But it does not currently offer the expanded market access that Asian countries need, given Biden’s preoccupation with American jobs.
Analysts say that while ASEAN countries share US concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and the incentives limited economics of the United States.
Kao Kim Hourn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters the country would not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, although U.S. investment in his country is increasing.
Hun Sen was targeted by a shoe-throwing protester on Wednesday ahead of his first visit to the White House during a term that began in 1985. The Cambodian leader has come under fire from activists for suppressing dissent.