With China in focus, Biden makes $150 million pledge to ASEAN leaders

WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden opened a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders promising to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at countering the influence of rival China .

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

Biden smiled broadly as he snapped 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 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is on the agenda, the Biden administration hopes the efforts will show the countries Washington remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it sees as the country’s main competitor.

In November alone, China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries over three years to fight COVID and boost economic recovery.

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

The new financial commitment includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure aimed at decarbonising the region’s electricity supply and $60 million in maritime safety, as well as approximately $15 million in health funding to aid early detection of COVID-19. 19 and other respiratory pandemics, an official said. Additional funding will help countries develop laws for the digital economy and artificial intelligence.

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

Yet the pledges pale in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investments and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither is definitive.

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

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

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

CONCERNS ABOUT CHINA

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

China’s claim of sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea has pitted it against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.

But countries in the region are also frustrated by a US slowdown in working out plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump stepped out of a regional trade pact in 2017.

“The US should adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the US economically and strategically,” Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Thursday. read more

The IPEF will be launched next week during Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea. But it doesn’t currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries crave, given Biden’s concern for US jobs.

Analysts say that while ASEAN countries share US concerns about China, they remain reluctant to side with Washington given their predominant economic ties to Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

Kao Kim Hourn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters the country would not choose sides between Washington and Beijing, although US investment in his country is 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 tenure that began in 1985. The Cambodian leader has been criticized by activists for suppressing dissent. read more

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Simon Lewis and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Mary Milliken, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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