US Aims to Strengthen ASEAN Relations to Counter China

Biden and the representatives of the 10 nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Washington for a two-day summit, where the U.S. pledged $150 million investment on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness, and other efforts aimed at countering China’s influence in the region.

The representatives from Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia, Brunei, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand were available in the meeting.

Biden administration hopes to show the Indo-Pacific nations that it is still committed for long term relations and countering the challenge of China.

China has pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN nations in November alone.

The U.S. officials acknowledged that they must ramp up efforts in Southeast Asia. The priority is not to force the countries make a choice between the U.S. and China but show them that Washington looks for stronger relations.

The U.S. financial commitment includes a $40 million investment in infrastructure, $60 million in maritime security and $15 million in health funding.

The U.S. 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 seem inefficient in comparison to China’s deep ties and influence.

While Biden has been working on bringing more initiatives such as “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), neither are finalized.

The summit marks the first time that ASEAN’s leaders gather as a group at the White House and their first meeting hosted by a U.S. president since 2016.

Many of the ASEAN states share some of Washington’s concern about China. Beijing seeking sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.

The countries in the region have also been disappointed by the lack of a detailed U.S. plan for economic engagement since Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.

Biden aims to launch the IPEF next week during his visit to Japan and South Korea. But it does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries want, given Biden’s concern for American jobs.

Analysts say that even though ASEAN countries share U.S. concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and limited U.S. economic incentives.

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