US steps up Asean engagement with slew of programmes

Over $209m will go towards clean energy, maritime security and other initiatives

The United States stepped up its courtship of Asean 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 then adjourned to the State Dining Room for dinner.

The leaders took part in plenary sessions with Mr Biden and US Cabinet secretaries at the State Department yesterday, 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.

Of the US$150 million of programmes announced on Thursday, about US$40 million will go towards mobilising US$2 billion in financing for clean energy infrastructure.

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.

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 last year.

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

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.

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

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

Singapore welcomes the proposed economic plan for the Indo-Pacific and encourages greater Asean participation in it, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a dialogue with Asean and US business leaders on Thursday. He added that he hoped the framework would cover areas such as digital and green economies and infrastructure, which resonate strongly with the region.

PM Lee 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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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2022, with the headline US steps up Asean engagement with slew of programmes. Subscribe