US President Joe Biden renewed Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia during his attendance at a virtual summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday, October 27, setting the tone for his tenure as one of personal engagement in the region.
Biden’s attendance at the US-ASEAN summit was his first as president and the first top-level appearance for the US in four years. Former president Donald Trump snubbed the regional summit three years in a row, attending only in 2017.
Facing a wall of videos, Biden sought to assure Southeast Asian leaders that a different path would be taken under his watch. “I want you all to hear directly from me the importance the United States places on our relationship with ASEAN,” he said.
“You can expect to see us showing up as Vice President [Kamala] Harris did with her recent trip to the region. You can expect to see me personally showing up and reaching out to you,” Biden added.
Analysts had often remarked that the US absence in high-level fora undermined its efforts to engage the region, while the lack of representation by Trump exacerbated unclear signals about the country’s commitment to ASEAN.
Biden attempted to dispel this, telling the region’s leaders that “our continued cooperation is only growing more important – not less.” The Biden administration has also communicated that its foreign policy agenda included shoring up partnerships and rebuilding ties with allies after Trump’s transactional approach to relations.
Biden also reassured ASEAN leaders that the US viewed the regional bloc as “essential to the region.” He had been expected to address concerns that Washington’s recent engagement with the Quad group or India, Japan, and Australia, including its deal with Australia to supply nuclear-powered submarines, were not a replacement for ASEAN’s role in the region.
“Our bottom line is that ASEAN is essential, I want to say – it is essential to the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific. And the United States is committed to ASEAN’s centrality. You know, it’s a linchpin. It’s a linchpin for maintaining the resilience, the prosperity, and security of our shared region,” he said.
Partnering with ASEAN countries is key element of Biden’s plans to focus on the Asia-Pacific region. During his meeting on Wednesday, Biden announced that $102 million in new programs would be channeled towards the region to address issues including climate change, COVID-19, and economic partnerships.
“I want you to know I’m looking forward to working with you to advance not only our many shared interests, but our shared values and shared vision for a region where every country can compete and succeed on a level playing field and all nations, no matter how big or powerful, abide by the law,” Biden said.
During the meeting, Biden also called out the military coup and “horrific violence” in Myanmar and expressed support for ASEAN’s five-point consensus on the issue.
In an unprecedented snub to the leader of a member state, ASEAN had decided to sideline junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led a February 1 coup that spiralled into violence and nationwide chaos, for his failure to cease hostilities, allow humanitarian access and start dialogue with opponents, as agreed with ASEAN in April. – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com