U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday rebooted his country’s lapsed relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by attending the annual meeting of the 10-member bloc virtually and announcing plans to provide up to $102 million to expand the U.S. strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Our partnership is essential in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been the foundation of our shared security and prosperity for many decades,” Biden said in his opening remarks delivered from the White House as leaders of nine of the 10 nations listened. “And the United States strongly supports the ASEAN outlook and the Indo-Pacific — on the Indo-Pacific and the rules-based regional order.”
This year’s summit is hosted by Brunei. The other members of the regional bloc are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Myanmar was not allowed to attend — the group banned its military junta leader for ignoring a peace road map agreed to six months ago.
Biden underscored the importance of ASEAN and called the relationship a “linchpin for maintaining the resilience, the prosperity, and security of our shared region.”
The White House said the new funding will go toward health, climate, economic and education programs.
Included in the package is $40 million that will go to an initiative to help address the current COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen ASEAN’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to future outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Another $20.5 million will finance climate mitigation, and up to $20 million will support cooperation on trade and innovation. Another $17.5 million is earmarked for education projects, and $4 million to promote gender equality and equity.
The summit is the first time in four years that an American president participated at the top level with an economically dynamic regional bloc seen as key to countering an increasingly assertive China.
Marc Mealy, senior vice president for policy at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, said he welcomes Biden’s re-engagement. “We’re talking about a region that by 2030 is going to be one of the largest regional economies in the world,” he said.
While the United States is seen as a security guarantor against rising Chinese ambition in the region, Washington is lagging behind Beijing in terms of economic ties. According to ASEAN data, the bloc became China’s largest trading partner in 2020.
ASEAN and China are also part of the world’s biggest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The U.S. is not part of the deal, which covers nearly 30% of the global economy.
The U.S. is also left out of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement formerly known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The 2016 TPP was promoted by former president Barack Obama but Trump withdrew from it in 2017.
“On several issues, whether it’s trade or climate, the United States plays an important role in setting the table, and then sometimes leaves the table,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Asia program.
He pointed out that geographically, Washington is at a disadvantage and will need to work harder to win ASEAN support at the same time that regional players, including China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, are eager to step in.
“When you raise the bar, and then you subsequently walk away, there’s a double disadvantage,” Parameswaran said.
In recent years, the U.S.-China rivalry in Southeast Asia has intensified significantly. The Biden administration is continuing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in the region, which singles out Beijing for pursuing regional hegemony.
But most members of ASEAN refuse a binary choice between the U.S. and China and underscore the need to cooperate with both, while ensuring freedom of navigation, including in the Taiwan Straits.
“What’s the benefit for conflict happening in that area? Who gets the benefit?” Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan said to VOA. “Nobody. COVID is enough (to) create the problem,” he said.
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