Focusing on China, Biden pledged $150 million to ASEAN leaders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden opened a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders and promised to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at countering the influence of rival China.

Biden, on Thursday, kicked off a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington with a leaders’ dinner at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday.

Biden smiled widely as he posed for 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.

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While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is on the agenda, the Biden administration hopes that efforts will emerge from countries where Washington remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge to China, which it sees as the country’s main competitor.

In response to Biden’s latest move, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it welcomes any cooperation that promotes sustainable development and prosperity in the region.

“China and ASEAN do not participate in zero-lose matches and do not promote the confrontation between the bloc,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Friday.

In November alone, China pledged $1.5 billion in development aid to ASEAN countries over three years to combat the coronavirus and boost economic recovery.

“We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to choose between the United States and China. But we do want to make it clear, though, that the United States is seeking stronger relations.”

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The new financial commitment includes an investment of $40 million in infrastructure intended to help decarbonize the region’s energy supply and $60 million in maritime security, as well as approximately $15 million in health funding to aid in the early detection of COVID-19 and respiratory epidemics. The other, an official said. The additional funding will help countries develop laws for the digital economy and artificial intelligence.

The US Coast Guard will also deploy a ship to the region to help local fleets counter what Washington and countries in the region have called China’s illegal fishing.

However, the commitments pale in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including infrastructure investment to “Rebuild a Better World” and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither has been completed.

The summit is the first time ASEAN leaders have gathered as a group in the White House and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to participate in the talks. The Myanmar leader was disqualified over last year’s coup, and the Philippines is in a post-election transition, although Biden spoke to the country’s president-elect, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, on Wednesday. The country was represented by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the White House.

ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to have lunch with congressional leaders.

worry about china

The two countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.

China’s assertion of sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea put it at odds with Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts.

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However, countries in the region are also frustrated by the US delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump withdrew from the regional trade agreement in 2017.

“The United States should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the United States both economically and strategically,” Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaqoub said Thursday. Read more

The IPEF is set to launch on Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week. But it does not currently provide the expanded market access that Asian countries crave, given Biden’s interest in American jobs.

Analysts say that although ASEAN countries share the United States’ concerns about China, they remain wary about siding more with Washington, given their prevailing economic ties with Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

Cao Kim Horn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters that his country would not “choose a side” between Washington and Beijing, even though US investment in the country was increasing. Read more

On Wednesday, Hun Sen was the target of a shoe-throwing protester prior to his first visit to the White House during a period beginning in 1985. The Cambodian leader faced criticism from activists for suppressing dissent. Read more

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Additional reporting by Trevor Honeycutt, Michael Martina, David Bronstrom, Simon Lewis and Doina Chiaco; Additional reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard in Beijing Editing by Mary Milliken, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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