Biden wants to push ASEAN leaders to speak out on Russia

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Biden is seeking to push Southeast Asian leaders to be more outspoken about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the issue remains a delicate one for many members of the region’s 10-nation alliance with close ties to Moscow. question.

Biden welcomed leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to an intimate dinner at the White House on Thursday night, kicking off the two-day summit, the first in Washington in the group’s 45-year history.

The White House is also trying to show it is stepping up in the Pacific, even as the administration has been focused on the war in Ukraine. It announced that the United States will commit to invest more than $150 million in new projects to strengthen climate, ocean and public health infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

But Biden knows it can be difficult to reach consensus with ASEAN members on a Russian aggression.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that Ukraine would be on the agenda for the leaders’ talks, but she could not predict whether the group would mention the Russian invasion in the summit communiqué.

“I would say that some of the players in ASEAN have been important partners in calling for aggressive Russian actions and have participated in and supported sanctions and, of course, abide by them,” she said.

Some ASEAN members — Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos — have relied on Russia for military hardware for years. With the exception of Singapore, the only G10 member to impose direct sanctions on Moscow, the coalition has avoided criticism of President Vladimir Putin or Russia’s indictment of the war.

Indonesia has been cautious in publicly commenting on the invasion and, like the Philippines, has made it clear that it will not impose sanctions on Russia. Thailand joined the United Nations to vote against the invasion of Ukraine, but remained neutral in the war.

The leaders were scheduled to hold formal talks at the State Department on Friday, and Biden was scheduled to speak at the group.

ASEAN countries include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The top leader of ASEAN member Myanmar was barred from attending, while outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin to represent his government.

The summit comes ahead of Biden’s trips to South Korea and Japan next week — his first trip to Asia as president. He will hold talks with the leaders of the two countries and, during his visit, will meet with the leaders of the Indo-Pacific Strategic Alliance comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

Early in his presidency, Biden sought to focus more on improving relations with Pacific nations, viewing a rising China as the most threatening economic and national security adversary to the United States.

But his attempts to realign U.S. foreign policy have been complicated by the worst fighting in Europe since World War II.

New U.S. investments in ASEAN nations announced at the start of the summit on Thursday include $40 million for clean energy infrastructure, $60 million for new regional maritime initiatives and $6 million to accelerate digital development in the region.

The White House also announced that the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies will establish a privately funded institute for emerging leaders from ASEAN countries that will bring mid-career public sector officials to the United States for leadership training .

ASEAN has barred Myanmar — mired in crisis since the army overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 — from sending all but non-government leaders to ASEAN meetings.

The Biden administration has condemned the military coup that led to the ouster of Aung San Suu Kyi. She was convicted of corruption by a military court last month and sentenced to five years in prison in the first of several corruption cases against her. Aung San Suu Kyi has denied the allegations.

Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the White House National Security Council, said that since the U.S. and ASEAN members are not on the same page on all issues.

He added that the government would like to see the group play a “deeper role in key diplomacy regarding the next steps” in Myanmar.

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