US tells Southeast Asian leaders it will be in the region for ‘generations’

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WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) – The United States told Southeast Asian leaders on Friday it would stay in the region for generations and stressed the need to maintain the freedom of the seas, which Washington said , is contested by China.

Addressing a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vice President Kamala Harris said the region was a priority for the United States. The opening session of their meeting at the State Department on Friday will focus on maritime safety and health issues, she said.

“The United States and ASEAN have shared a vision for this region, and together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms,” ​​she said.

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She did not mention China by name, which Washington accuses of using coercion against its neighbors.

“We stand with our allies and partners in upholding the rules-based maritime order, which includes freedom of navigation and international law,” she said.

“As an Indo-Pacific nation, the United States will be present and continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come,” Harris added.

Harris said the United States would continue to respond with ASEAN to the threat of COVID-19, having already donated more than 115 million vaccines to the region.

“As long as COVID is present in a country, it affects us all,” she said.

Harris said the conversation was “very robust and constructive” as she opened a subsequent session on climate and clean energy.

“Together, we must raise our collective ambition, accelerate the transition to a clean environment and meet our infrastructure needs in a sustainable way,” she said.

President Joe Biden opened the summit, bringing together Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, hosting a dinner for leaders at the House on Thursday. White.

Myanmar’s leader was ousted in a coup last year and US treaty ally the Philippines is in transition after an election, although Biden spoke to the country’s president-elect Ferdinand on Wednesday. Marcos Jr. The country was represented by its Foreign Secretary.

The Biden administration hopes these efforts will show countries that Washington remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it sees as its main competitor despite the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be on the agenda, with the United States hoping to persuade ASEAN countries to do more to push Moscow back.

On Thursday, Washington pledged $150 million to help improve infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other projects in ASEAN, but US spending pales in comparison to China’s.

In November alone, Beijing promised them $1.5 billion in development assistance over three years to fight COVID and fuel economic recovery. US officials admit that Washington needs to step up its game in the region.

New US commitments will include deploying a US Coast Guard vessel to the region to help counter what Washington and regional countries have described as China’s illegal fishing.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Building a Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). But neither is finalized.

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

CONCERN OVER CHINA

ASEAN countries share many of Washington’s concerns over China’s assertiveness, including Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea where Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have rival claims.

But they also remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties to Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

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

During a virtual summit with ASEAN last October, Biden said Washington would begin discussions on developing what has since been dubbed IPEF to engage more with the Indo-Pacific economically. .

However, analysts and diplomats say only two of ASEAN’s 10 countries – Singapore and the Philippines – are expected to be part of the initial group to sign up for negotiations under the IPEF, which currently does not offer the expanded market access that Asian nations need given Biden’s concern. for American jobs.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Thursday that Washington should adopt a more “active” trade and investment agenda with ASEAN. Read more

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Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Michael Martina and Trevor Hunnicutt, editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Zieminski

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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