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Southeast Asian leaders welcomed with energy, maritime pledges

WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) President Joe Biden on Thursday welcomed Southeast Asian leaders to Washington with promises to support clean energy and maritime security.

Top leaders from eight of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) flew to Washington for the two-day summit, which opened with a closed-door White House dinner of thyme poached chicken and vanilla ice cream.

The Biden administration is eager to prove it is still prioritising Asia despite months of intense focus on repelling Russia’s invasion.

The White House announced some USD150 million in new initiatives – a modest sum compared with a USD40 billion package for Ukraine and with the billions pumped into the region by China.

But the US said it was 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.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, welcoming ASEAN leaders to lunch earlier in the day, drew a link as she encouraged Southeast Asia to stand firm against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“If left unchecked, we leave the door open to additional aggression,” she said. Pelosi called the summit “another manifestation of America’s commitment to be a strong, reliable partner in Southeast Asia.”

In a contrast to China’s hands-off approach, Pelosi said she believed in “candour” and urged the Southeast Asian leaders to respect human rights.

In the biggest chunk of the new funding, the White House said it was committing USD60 million to new maritime initiatives that will include the deployment of a Coast Guard cutter and personnel to fight crime including illegal fishing. The White House said it was also devoting USD40 million to invest in clean energy in the climate change-vulnerable region and was working with the private sector to raise up to USD2 billion.

Another initiative – launched as Biden separately held a virtual summit on COVID – includes a project to test for emerging respiratory diseases through a new office in Hanoi of the US Centers for Disease Control.

“I hope this meeting can build a momentum for the return of the US presence in the region,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a sideline forum of the US-ASEAN Business Council.

Southeast Asia has often been seen as a victim of its own success, with the US focussed elsewhere for lack of pressing problems in the region. But in Myanmar, once hailed as a democratic success story, the US has been ratcheting up pressure since the junta in February last year toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.