US, Asean to upgrade ties to comprehensive partnership

PM Lee says summit and outcome signal the US values its partnership with South-east Asia

The US and Asean ended their summit on Friday with an agreement to work on upgrading their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in November, following similar agreements Asean had made with Australia and China late last year.

The elevated partnership will be "meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial", they said at the end of two days of meetings to mark 45 years of ties.

"We are not only celebrating 45 years of partnership and friendship between Asean and the United States; we are launching a new era of US and Asean relations," said US President Joe Biden.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the summit and the upgrading of ties are a signal that the US values its partnership with Asean and would like to engage more with the region.

The US also moved to fill the position of US ambassador to Asean, a post that has been vacant since the start of the Trump administration.

Mr Biden said he was nominating National Security Council chief of staff and executive secretary Yohannes Abraham, a move welcomed by the Asean leaders.

Washington sought to underscore its "enduring commitment" to the region at the summit, rolling out US$150 million (S$209 million) worth of programmes in clean energy, maritime cooperation, public health and education.

Mr Biden said Washington's enthusiasm for engagement in the region was reflected across his entire administration, noting that discussions had ranged from combating the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change to building sustainable, quality infrastructure.

"The breadth of our discussions reflects just how vital the Indo-Pacific and Asean regions are to the United States of America," he said.

"A great deal of the history of our world for the next 50 years is going to be written in the Asean countries."

PM Lee said the summit was meaningful, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic, and tensions between the US and China.

"In the midst of all this, for the US to focus on Asean and to bring the Asean leaders here and cultivate that relationship and develop it further, I think it shows that the US values its partnership with Asean, South-east Asia, and that they would like to do more with us," he told Singapore reporters in an interview.

"The US continues to be focused on the Asia-Pacific, even despite all its other many busy preoccupations. That is good for us because Singapore's view has been for a long time that the US plays a constructive, in fact, indispensable, role in our region. Nobody else can replace them in that role and the regional balance is shifting but all the more, we appreciate the US continuing to remain engaged," he said.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), America's upcoming economic strategy for the region, was also discussed. Quite a number of Asean countries are interested in the framework and some of them will take part when it is launched, PM Lee said, adding that Singapore supports the plan.

"US participation in the Asia-Pacific cannot be only limited to security and defence. It must also consist of economic cooperation, and also include other areas such as environmental issues," he said.

PM Lee acknowledged the domestic political realities that prevent the US from rejoining what was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Washington pulled out of in January 2017, and called the IPEF an "alternative construct".

"In terms of investment and trade, there is not much substance yet, but looking at it from another angle, it has its own value," he said.

"It is, after all, a new start. Although the US is not ready to participate in trade or investment cooperation, hopefully with the IPEF, we will be able to work from there and eventually restore economic cooperation fully."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2022, with the headline US, Asean to upgrade ties to comprehensive partnership. Subscribe