U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday that the first summit meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington has ushered in a “new era” of relations between the United States and the 10-nation bloc.
In a joint 28-point “vision statement” following the two-day meeting, the two sides took a symbolic step in November, pledging to move their relationship from a strategic partnership to a “broader strategic partnership.”
In the case of Ukraine, they reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity”, a term that a regional expert says goes further than past ASEAN statements. The statement did not name Russia for the February 24 attack.
The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have met in Washington as a group and their first meeting hosted by a U.S. president since 2016.
The Biden administration hopes the effort will show that the United States is focused on the long-term challenges of the Indo-Pacific and China, which it sees as its main rival despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He also hoped that the ASEAN countries would be persuaded to tighten their grip on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Biden told ASEAN leaders that “over the next 50 years, a large part of our world history is going to be written in ASEAN countries, and our relationship with you in the coming years and decades to come.”
Biden called the US-ASEAN partnership “critical” and said: “We are entering 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 stressed the need to maintain maritime independence, which the United States said was challenged by China.
“The United States and ASEAN share a vision for the region, and together we will protect ourselves from the threat of international law and order,” Harris said.
Neither he nor Biden mentioned China. The United States has accused China of using force against its neighbors.
Harris said Washington would continue to respond to ASEAN’s threat of Covid-19, having already donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region. He said both sides need to show shared ambition on climate change, accelerate the transition to clean energy and meet the demand for sustainable infrastructure.
ASEAN Group Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar’s leader was ousted from the summit last year in a coup. The Philippines, an ally of the U.S. treaty, was represented at the meeting by its foreign minister in the aftermath of an election.
Biden hosted a summit dinner at the White House on Thursday and his administration pledged $ 150 million for areas including infrastructure, security, epidemic preparedness and clean energy.
China’s rivalry, shared concern
The new U.S. commitment will include the deployment of a Coast Guard ship in the region to help the United States and regional countries deal with what it describes as illegal fishing by China.
Still, U.S. spending is lighter than China’s, which in November alone pledged 1.5 1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN to fight Covid and recover economically.
Biden announced on Friday that he would nominate Johannes Abraham, chief of staff of the National Security Council, to fill the vacancy left by the Donald Trump administration in 2017 and become ambassador to ASEAN. Biden is working on other initiatives, including “Build Back”, Better World’s Infrastructure Investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Gregory Polling, a Southeast Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the summit was primarily about symbolism with a missing element of the economy, as the IPEF is not expected to launch until Biden visits Japan in May.
“Everyone seems happy and the diplomatic message of promise is coming down. But … modestly, please, $ 150 million is not going to affect anyone,” he said. “It leaves a lot to be desired on the IPEF.”
Raising relations in a comprehensive strategic partnership coincided with similar moves by ASEAN with Australia and China last year.
“It’s symbolically important, though it won’t change the concrete position too much,” Polling said.
He noted that Ukraine’s statement did not name Russia, but said that “the call to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity is a clear criticism of Russia and apparently all ASEAN leaders are committed to recognizing any Russian annexation of Ukraine.” “
ASEAN countries share many U.S. concerns about China’s resilience, including its claim to sovereignty over vast areas of the South China Sea where several rivals claim.
However, they are wary of taking a stronger stand with Washington because of their major economic ties with China and limited US economic incentives. Some, such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, have remaining historical ties with Russia.
ASEAN states have been frustrated by US delays in detailed plans for economic integration since Trump pulled out of a regional trade deal in 2017. Biden announced his intention to create an IPEF at a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders in October.
Analysts and diplomats say only two ASEAN countries – Singapore and the Philippines – are expected to be among the initial group to sign up for talks under the IPEF, which currently does not offer Asian countries access to expanded markets due to Biden’s concerns about American jobs.