US tells Asean leaders Washington committed 'for generations'

President Joe Biden also nominates Yohannes Abraham as envoy to South-East Asia alliance

US President Joe Biden participates in the US-Asean Special Summit at the State Department in Washington. AFP
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President Joe Biden on Friday promised a long-term commitment to South-East Asia in the face of China's growing influence as he met regional leaders for a first summit in Washington.

Mr Biden laid out $150 million in new initiatives and announced plans for the first full US ambassador to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) in more than five years.

A region that “is free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure is what we're all seeking”, Mr Biden told Asean leaders, a day after he kicked off the two-day summit.

Vice President Kamala Harris, meeting Asean leaders for a working lunch, said the administration “recognises the vital strategic importance of your region”.

“As an Indo-Pacific nation, the United States will be present and continue to be engaged in South-East Asia for generations to come,” she said.

US President Joe Biden in a group photo with leaders of Asean countries outside the White House. Bloomberg

Mr Biden said he would nominate Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff of the National Security Council and a key aide during the presidential transition, as ambassador to Asean's secretariat in Jakarta.

The US has not had a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Asean since Barack Obama's presidency, with Donald Trump only nominating an envoy after losing the 2020 election.

The Biden administration is hoping to demonstrate a sustained interest in South-East Asia after months focused on repelling Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Biden took office saying that his top foreign policy priority would be global competition with China, which has surpassed the US as South-East Asia's top trading partner and has been increasingly assertive on territorial disputes in the region.

Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Centre for a New American Security, said Mr Biden's summit pledges were bound to bring “uncomfortable comparisons”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, at his own virtual summit with Asean last year, announced $1.5 billion in Covid aid over three years, while the US is preparing a $40bn package for embattled Ukraine.

“To complicate matters further, the United States lacks a trade policy in Asia, the region where it matters most,” Mr Fontaine said.

Mr Biden is expected to announce a broad “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” when he travels next week to Japan and South Korea.

The latest package for Asean, which follows the $100m announced by Mr Biden at an online summit last year, includes initiatives to back green energy and maritime security, with the US Coast Guard to send a ship to South-East Asia to help fight illegal fishing and other crime.

The Biden administration has made some headway in South-East Asia in isolating Russia, with all 10 Asean nations either supporting or abstaining in a UN General Assembly vote of condemnation.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said Asean's largest nation believed in “respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty of a country to another country”.

“Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible and we give the peaceful resolution of a conflict a chance to succeed,” she said.

“Because we know that if the war continues, all of us will suffer.”

Indonesia is the host of the Group of 20 summit in November and has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite US calls to shun him, but in a compromise said it would also welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Conspicuously not invited to Washington was Myanmar, whose junta overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government last year, triggering a series of US sanctions.

Myanmar denounced Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for meeting on the summit sidelines with members of the self-styled government in exile.

“In the Asia-Pacific region, China is a powerful country. Our country is dealing with and having relations with powerful China and India,” military spokesman Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun told AFP.

Updated: May 13, 2022, 11:05 PM