With China in the crosshairs, Biden commits $150 million to ASEAN leaders

WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden kicked off a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders by pledging to spend $150 million on infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts to counter 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 the leaders at the White House before talks at the State Department on Friday.

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

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

“China and ASEAN do not engage in zero-sum games and do not promote inter-bloc confrontation,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Friday.

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 administration official told reporters. “We are not asking countries to choose between the United States and China. However, we want to make it clear that the United States seeks stronger relations.”

The new financial commitment includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure to help decarbonize the region’s energy supply and $60 million in maritime security, as well as some $15 million in health funds to aid in the early detection of COVID-19. and other respiratory pandemics, an official said. The additional funding will help countries develop laws on 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 described as China’s illegal fishing.

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

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But they are not finished either.

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

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

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

CONCERN FOR CHINA

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

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

However, countries in the region have also been frustrated by the United States’ delay in detailing economic engagement plans since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.

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

The IPEF will launch on Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week. But it doesn’t currently offer the expanded market access that Asian countries crave, given Biden’s concern about American jobs.

Analysts say that while ASEAN countries share US concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their prevailing economic ties to Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

Kao Kim Hourn, an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, told Reuters the country will not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, even though US investment in his country is growing. read more

On Wednesday, Hun Sen was targeted by a protester who threw shoes at him before his first visit to the White House during a term that began in 1985. The Cambodian leader has faced criticism from activists for cracking down on dissent. read more

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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Michael Martina, David Brunnstrom, Simon Lewis, and Doina Chiacu; additional reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing Editing by Mary Milliken, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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