US hails ‘new era’ with ASEAN as summit vows to upscale ties

WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that a first summit in Washington with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marked the beginning of a “new era” in the relationship between the United States and the United States. bloc of 10 nations.

In a 28-point joint “vision statement” after a two-day meeting, the two sides took what analysts called a symbolic step by pledging to elevate their relationship from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November. .

On Ukraine, they reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity,” wording that a regional expert said went beyond previous ASEAN statements. The statement did not condemn Russia by name for its February 24 invasion.

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The summit marked the first time ASEAN leaders have met as a group in Washington and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.

The Biden administration hopes the effort will show that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge from China, which it sees as its main competitor, despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He also hoped to persuade ASEAN countries to toughen their stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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

Calling the US-ASEAN partnership “critical,” Biden said, “We are ushering in a new era, a new era, in US-ASEAN relations.”

Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would remain in Southeast Asia for “generations” and emphasized the need to maintain the freedom of the seas, which the United States says is challenged by China.

“The United States and ASEAN have a shared vision for this region, and together we will protect 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 that Washington would continue to respond with ASEAN to the threat of COVID-19, having already donated more than 115 million doses of vaccine to the region. He said both sides needed to show collective ambition on climate change, speed up the transition to clean energy and meet infrastructure needs in a sustainable way.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The Myanmar leader was excluded from the summit by a coup last year. US ally the Philippines, in transition after 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

The new US commitments will include the deployment of a Coast Guard ship to the region to help counter what the US and countries in the region have described as illegal fishing by China.

Still, US spending pales in comparison to that of China, which in November alone pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN over three years to fight COVID and fuel economic recovery.

Biden on Friday announced the nomination of Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff of his National Security Council, to be ambassador to ASEAN, filling a post that has been vacant since the start of the Donald Trump administration in 2017. Biden is working on other initiatives, including “Build Back Better World Infrastructure Investment” and an 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 component as IPEF is not expected to launch until Biden visits Japan in late May. read more

“Everyone seems happy and the diplomatic message of compromise is landing. But… a modest, to put it nicely, $150 million is not going to impress anyone,” she said. “That leaves a lot at stake at IPEF.”

Elevating the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership coincided with similar moves by ASEAN with Australia and China last year.

“That’s symbolically important, although it wouldn’t change much in concrete terms,” ​​Poling said.

He noted that the statement on Ukraine did not condemn Russia by name, but said “the call to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity is an obvious criticism of Russia and would apparently compromise all ASEAN leaders.” to never recognize any Russian annexation of Ukraine”. .”

ASEAN countries share many US concerns about China’s assertiveness, including its claim to sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea, where several have rival claims.

However, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their prevailing economic ties to China and limited economic incentives from the US. Some, such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, have residual historical ties to Russia.

ASEAN states have been frustrated by the U.S. delay in detailing economic engagement plans since Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017. Biden announced the intention to create IPEF in a virtual summit with leaders of ASEAN in October.

Analysts and diplomats have said that only two ASEAN countries, Singapore and the Philippines, are expected to be among the initial group to sign up for negotiations under IPEF, which currently does not offer the expanded market access that Asian nations want given the Biden’s concern for American jobs.

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Reporting by Jeff Mason, David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina, Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt, and Simon Lewis; Written by David Brunnstrom; Edited by Angus MacSwan, Nick Zieminski, Will Dunham, Daniel Wallis, and William Mallard

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