U.S. hails ‘new era’ with ASEAN, summit promises higher ties

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© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the U.S. State Department in Washington, U.S., May 13, 2022.REUTERS/Leah Millis

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Authors: Jeff Mason, David Brunstrum and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that the first summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington marked the beginning of a “new era” in U.S. relations with the 10-nation nation. group.

Following the two-day meeting, the two sides took what analysts said was a symbolic step in a joint 28-point “vision statement”, pledging to elevate the relationship from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategy” in November. Partnerships”.

On Ukraine, they reiterated “respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity,” a language a regional expert said goes further than past ASEAN statements. The statement did not name and condemn Russia’s February 24 invasion.

The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have gathered collectively in Washington, and the first time they have been chaired by a U.S. president since 2016.

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

He also hopes to persuade ASEAN countries to take a tough stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden told ASEAN leaders, “A lot of our world’s history over the next 50 years will be written in ASEAN countries, and our relationship with you is the future of the years and decades to come.”

Biden called the U.S.-ASEAN partnership “critical” and said: “We are opening a new era of U.S.-ASEAN relations — a new era.”

Vice President Kamala Harris said the U.S. would stay in Southeast Asia for “generations” and stressed the need to preserve freedom of the seas, which the U.S. says is challenged by China.

“The United States and ASEAN share a common vision for the region, and together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms,” ​​Harris said.

Neither she nor Biden mentioned China by name. The U.S. accuses China of coercing its neighbors.

Harris said Washington will continue to work with ASEAN to tackle the threat of COVID-19, having donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region. She said both parties needed to demonstrate collective ambition on climate change, accelerate the transition to clean energy and sustainably meet infrastructure needs.

ASEAN Group Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar’s leader was excluded from the summit last year because of a coup. The Philippines, a treaty ally of the United States, was in a transition period after the election, and was represented by its foreign minister.

Biden hosted a summit dinner at the White House on Thursday, where his administration pledged $150 million for infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and clean energy.

China’s competition, shared concerns

The new U.S. commitment will include the deployment of a Coast Guard vessel to the region to help combat what the U.S. and countries in the region say are illegal Chinese fishing.

Still, U.S. spending is dwarfed by China, which in November alone pledged $1.5 billion in development aid to ASEAN over three years to fight COVID and drive economic recovery.

Biden on Friday announced the nomination of his National Security Council chief of staff, Johannes Abraham, as ambassador to ASEAN, filling a vacancy since Donald Trump’s administration took office in 2017. Biden is working on other initiatives, including “Building Back for a Better World” infrastructure investment and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

Gregory Pollin, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the summit was mostly about symbolism, and economics was missing a component, as the IPEF is expected to visit later in May by Biden Japan started before.

“Everyone seems happy and the promised diplomatic message is landing. But … modestly speaking, $150 million won’t impress anyone,” he said. “That leaves a lot of pressure on IPEF.”

Last year, ASEAN took similar steps with Australia and China to elevate the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

“It’s symbolic, although concretely it won’t change much,” Paulin said.

He noted that the statement on Ukraine did not name and condemn Russia, but said that “calling for respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity is a clear criticism of Russia and would seem to make all ASEAN leaders promise never to recognize any Russian involvement in Ukraine. annexed . . . ”

ASEAN countries share many concerns with the U.S.’s confidence in China, including its claims to the vast South China Sea, some of which have argued against it.

However, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their major economic ties to China and limited U.S. economic incentives. Some countries, such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, have residual historical ties to Russia.

Asean countries have been frustrated by U.S. delays in detailing plans for economic engagement since Trump withdrew from a regional trade pact in 2017. Biden announced his intention to create the IPEF at a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders in October.

Analysts and diplomats say only two Asean nations — Singapore and the Philippines — are expected to be among the first to sign up for IPEF talks, a deal that currently fails to provide what Asian nations want given Biden’s concerns about U.S. jobs. expansion of market access.

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