Biden welcomes South-east Asian leaders with energy, security pledges

US President Joe Biden (centre) and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington on May 12, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Joe Biden on Thursday (May 12) welcomed South-east Asian leaders to Washington, promising support for clean energy and maritime security in the face of a rising China.

The Biden administration made the pledge as it opened a two-day summit with the Association of South-east Asian Nations, part of a campaign to show that the United States still prioritises Asia despite months of intense focus on repelling Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The White House announced some US$150 million (S$210 million) in new initiatives - a modest sum compared with a US$40 billion package for Ukraine and with the billions pumped into the region by China, which has surpassed the United States as Asean's largest trading partner.

But the United States said it is working with its private sector and it plans to unveil a broader package, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, when Biden travels next week to Tokyo and Seoul.

"I hope this meeting can build a momentum for the return of the US presence in the region," Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a forum of the US-Asean Business Council before the leaders headed to a White House dinner.

The White House said it is committing US$60 million to new maritime initiatives that will include the deployment of a Coast Guard cutter and personnel to fight crime on sea.

Efforts will include countering illegal fishing and the use of forced labour, a US official said.

The waters around the South China Sea are among the busiest in the world, connecting the economic powerhouses of Asia with the energy supplies of the Middle East, and the area is rife with territorial disputes with Beijing.

The White House said it is also devoting US$40 million to invest in clean energy in economically diverse South-east Asia and said the United States is working with the private sector to raise up to US$2 billion.

Another initiative - launched as Biden separately held a virtual summit on Covid-19 - includes a project to test for emerging respiratory diseases in urban South-east Asia through a new office in Hanoi of the US Centres for Disease Control.

Meeting with Myanmar opposition

South-east Asia has often been seen as a victim of its own success, with the United States focused elsewhere for lack of pressing problems in the region.

But in Myanmar, once hailed as a democratic success story, the United States has been ratcheting up pressure since the junta in February last year toppled Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.

In a symbolic statement, the United States will represent Myanmar with an empty chair at the summit.

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As leaders gathered in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with representatives of the democratic leadership in exile, the National Unity Government, including its foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung.

Sherman said the United States will "continue to work closely with Asean and other partners in pressing for a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma", a State Department statement said, using Myanmar's former name of Burma.

Human Rights Watch said that the focus on Myanmar is insufficient and that Biden should address democratic backsliding across South-east Asia.

"If the US doesn't publicly raise human rights concerns during meetings, the message will be that human rights abuses are now tolerated in the name of forging alliances to counter China," said John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director.

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