The United States remains committed to Asean centrality under America's Indo-Pacific strategy, and looks forward to broadening and deepening its strategic partnership with the region, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his first meeting with his Asean counterparts yesterday.
In using a term Asean leaders cite to stress that the region must be at the core of any initiative affecting it, Mr Pompeo noted that President Donald Trump attended Asean-led summits in Manila last November and Vice-President Mike Pence had also travelled to the region.
"I expect and am eager for this frequent engagement to continue," Mr Pompeo said.
"Our economic engagement has created hundreds of thousands of jobs on both sides of the Pacific. Asean is the No. 1 destination for US investment in Asia, and Asean member states have increased their investment into the US by over 1,300 per cent between 2004 and 2016," he added.
Speaking at the start of the Asean-US ministerial meeting, Mr Pompeo underlined his country's continued commitment to Asean, citing the US$113 million (S$154 million) initiative he had announced earlier this week to help fund energy, infrastructure and digital economy projects in the region.
He added: "On security, we appreciate Asean's ongoing efforts to promote peace and stability in the region, support the rule of law in the South China Sea and to strictly enforce sanctions on North Korea."
The Asean-US meeting is one of a series of annual meetings that Asean foreign ministers are holding with key partners to take stock of ties and see if they can be expanded.
This year's meetings take place amid trade tensions and geopolitical uncertainty.
Asean members have also been lukewarm to the notion of an Indo-Pacific strategy, as they are wary of being drawn into a tussle between great powers and want to be sure that Asean stays central - in the driver's seat - when it comes to decisions affecting the region.
Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano told reporters: "Of course, any strategy and new framework is always welcomed, but we always want to maintain Asean centrality."
Asean's key partners also sought to address members' concerns at meetings, as they underlined their commitment to Asean centrality.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia, which together with the US, Japan and India form the so-called quad of countries championing greater security cooperation as part of an Indo-Pacific strategy, told the Asean-Australia ministerial meeting: "Asean sits at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. It convenes the region's key forums... and has a unique capacity for collective action."
"Its centrality to the region's architecture is uncontested," Ms Bishop added.
Indian Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh said at the Asean-India ministerial meeting: "We see Asean as the fulcrum of peace, prosperity and stability in the region. We remain committed to promoting Asean's primacy in the regional architecture."
Yesterday, Asean ministers also held separate meetings with their counterparts from South Korea, Canada and the European Union.
Speaking before Mr Pompeo, Malaysian Foreign Minister Sai-fuddin Abdullah, who co-chaired the Asean-US meeting, said the US is an important and strategic partner for Asean, with solid relations encompassing wide areas of cooperation.
These span a range of areas including terrorism, cyber security, climate change, irregular migrants and maritime matters.
And Datuk Saifuddin said he looked forward to working with the US to bring this to a higher trajectory.
Earlier in the day, Mr Pompeo was in Putrajaya, where he called on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr Pompeo also called on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He will attend the East Asia Summit ministerial meeting and the Asean Regional Forum today before travelling to Jakarta.
He will call on Indonesian President Joko Widodo tomorrow.