Biden hosts Asean leaders at White House, announces $209 million of programmes

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WASHINGTON - The United States stepped up its courtship of Asean on Thursday (May 12), as President Joe Biden welcomed leaders of the South-east Asian grouping to the White House and announced more than US$150 million (S$209 million) of programmes with the regional bloc.

The sum will go towards programmes for clean energy, maritime security, education and public health, the White House said in a fact sheet released at the start of a two-day summit to mark 45 years of ties between America and Asean.

On Thursday evening, Mr Biden welcomed the bloc's leaders to the White House, the first time the grouping's leaders have met a US president there. They gathered for a quick group photo on the South Lawn, before moving indoors to the State Dining Room for a dinner that was closed to the press.

The leaders will take part in plenary sessions with Mr Biden and US Cabinet secretaries at the State Department on Friday, following a lunch hosted by US Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Washington has sought to reassure Asean of its ironclad commitment to the region, which it views as key to its strategic competition with China, and to stress that it is not forcing the regional bloc to choose between the two superpowers.

"This reflects a recognition on the part of the administration that we need to step up our game in South-east Asia and that as part of that, we need to work more closely with Asean," a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China," he added. "We want to make clear, though, that the United States seeks stronger relationships... to do that, we need to be responsive to the desires of countries in the region to work in areas that are important to them."

Of the US$150 million of programmes announced on Thursday, some US$40 million will go towards mobilising US$2 billion in financing for clean energy infrastructure, aimed at accelerating the usage of clean energy technologies in the region.

Another US$60 million will be in new regional maritime initiatives mostly led by the US Coast Guard. These will include programmes to help Asean countries counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and help prevent forced labour in the fishing industry.

The US Coast Guard will also increase its support to maritime law enforcement agencies in South-east Asia by placing a training team in the region for the first time, with the goal of strengthening the region's maritime law enforcement agencies.

Mr Greg Poling of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the region would welcome the maritime security funding just as it did the Maritime Security Initiative, a US$425 million five-year capacity-building programme from 2016 to 2021.

"Ongoing programmes through that initiative remain extremely popular with US partners across the region," Mr Poling, the director of CSIS' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told The Straits Times.

Other schemes will advance digital development across South-east Asia, boost educational exchange programmes, and strengthen health systems in the region.

US President Joe Biden (centre), Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (fourth from right) and other leaders from Asean posing for a picture in Washington on May 12, 2022. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

South-east Asia watchers noted that the overall sum was modest compared with the billions that China was pouring into the region, though the White House said the sum is expected to "mobilise billions more in private financing" and noted that it came on top of another US$102 million in programmes announced in October last year.

The Biden administration is also poised to unveil its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework later this month.

Mr Poling said: "US$150 million is not a lot, especially broken up across so many different programmes. Of course, it isn't nothing, and there are plenty of other very impactful US-funded programmes under way every year".

He added: "But this does highlight the challenge the administration faces narratively competing with China when Beijing can mobilise billions at a time by forcing state-owned enterprises to invest for political purposes.

"For the US, that mostly happens through the private sector, not on the US government balance sheet."

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcomed the US' interest in expanding cooperation with Asean in a number of areas, such as education, the economy and the environment, his press secretary Chang Li Lin said in a statement.

"PM Lee thanked President Biden for hosting the Asean-US Special Summit in Washington DC, which was a testament to the US' commitment to keep up high-level engagement with South-east Asia, even amid the difficult geopolitical situation," she said.

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