Biden pledges $150 million to ASEAN with a view to China | International trade news

The US president kicks off the summit with Southeast Asian leaders with a commitment to funding infrastructure, safety and health.

US President Joe Biden opened a summit of Southeast Asian leaders with a pledge to spend $150 million on infrastructure, security and anti-pandemic efforts as Washington tries to counter China’s increasing influence in the region.

Biden kicked off a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington on Thursday with dinner at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the agenda, the Biden administration hopes to demonstrate Washington’s continued focus on Asia-Pacific as Beijing becomes an increasingly powerful player in the region.

In November, China pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance to ASEAN countries — Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — over three years to fight COVID and support economic recovery.

“We are not asking countries to choose between the United States and China,” a senior US government official told reporters.

“However, we want to make it clear that the United States is seeking stronger relations.”

Washington’s financial commitment includes a $40 million investment to reduce the environmental footprint of the region’s power supply, $60 million in maritime safety and $15 million in health funding to tackle COVID-19 and future pandemics, said one officer. Other funding will focus on helping countries develop the digital economy and legal frameworks for artificial intelligence.

The US Coast Guard will also send a ship to the region to help local fleets counter what Washington and countries in the region have described as China’s illegal fishing.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investments and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), although neither has been finalized.

Friction with China

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

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to participate in the talks. Myanmar’s leader was ruled out last year over a coup and the Philippines is in transition after an election, although Biden spoke with the country’s president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr on Wednesday. The country was represented in the White House by its Secretary of State.

ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for lunch with congressional leaders.

Southeast Asian countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.

China’s claim to more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s major shipping routes, has heightened tensions with many of its regional neighbors, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.

However, countries in the region have also been frustrated with Washington’s level of economic engagement since former President Donald Trump left the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Thursday that the US “needs to adopt a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the US economically and strategically”.

The IPEF will be launched next week during Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea, although the initiative does not currently provide the expanded market access Asian countries are seeking, due to the US president’s concerns about US jobs.

Analysts say that while ASEAN countries share US concerns about China, they remain reluctant to side with Washington given their predominant economic ties to Beijing and limited US economic incentives.

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