US President Biden seeks to keep focus on China as he welcomes ASEAN leaders

President Joe Biden will host Southeast Asian leaders in Washington this week as his administration seeks to show it can stay focused on the Indo-Pacific and China’s long-term challenge despite the immediate crisis. in Ukraine.

A two-day summit with the Association of 10 Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) begins with a dinner at the White House on Thursday before talks at the State Department on May 13. Up to eight of the 10 ASEAN leaders are expected. Myanmar’s leader was ousted following a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election.

It will be the first time ASEAN leaders, created in some of the darkest days of the Cold War, will meet as a group at the White House. President Barack Obama was the last American leader to host them, at Sunnylands in California in 2016.

The summit comes ahead of Biden’s May 20-24 visit to South Korea and Japan, which will include meetings with the other leaders of the Quad group of countries – India, Australia and Japan – who share the concerns of the United States regarding China’s ambitions to expand its influence in the region and globally.

Kate Rebholz, acting US ambassador to ASEAN, told the Stimson Center in Washington that the summit would produce “an ambitious and forward-looking US-ASEAN vision statement” and new initiatives, including partnerships in areas of public health, climate and economic growth.

However, analysts and diplomats do not expect dramatic progress in what promises to be a largely symbolic summit. They say a key title is likely to be the elevation of the current US-ASEAN “strategic partnership” by adding a word to make it a “comprehensive” strategic partnership, bringing it into line with the description of the links. ASEAN with Australia and China.

But the fact that the summit took place despite Ukraine’s huge distraction was directly aimed at China, which Washington says remains its biggest long-term foreign policy challenge, regardless of Russia’s actions. “The meeting is the message … that the United States is in fact capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, and that it is not distracted,” said Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Singapore Foreign Affairs, at the Stimson event.

US officials have said the White House will seek more support for its efforts in Ukraine and is considering Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea this month, as well as planned visits to Southeast Asia later. late in the year.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Monday there would be “substantial” discussions with ASEAN on technology, education, infrastructure, and that Washington would soon announce plans to better combat illegal fishing in the Pacific.

ASEAN countries, several of which have competing claims with China in the South China Sea, are likely to welcome such moves and generally want to strengthen ties with Washington.

US FALLS FLAT ON ECONOMY

However, they have been frustrated by the US delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump left a regional trade pact in 2017. During a virtual summit with ASEAN in October Last, Biden said Washington would begin discussions on crafting a regional economic framework. , but diplomats say it should only feature peripherally this week.

Japan’s ambassador to Washington said Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) would likely be officially launched in Japan, but its details were still under discussion.

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

There has also been some frustration that ASEAN leaders have little personal time with Biden, with no bilateral meeting announced.

An adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since 1985 but making his first visit to the White House, said Reuters Biden should spend more time with leaders if he really wants to elevate ties with the region.

Kao Kim Hourn said Cambodia, which has close economic ties with China, would not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, even if US investment in his country increased. Likewise, ASEAN was working with both according to its principle of “inclusiveness”, he said. .

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

“The United States is doing a pretty solid job on politics and security, but it’s failing on the economics,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They can’t compete effectively with China if they just bring guns and diplomacy. He has to bring money to put it bluntly, and we haven’t been good at that.”

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