US President Biden opens a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders with a promise to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at countering the influence of rival China.
President Joe Biden has welcomed Southeast Asian leaders to Washington, promising support for clean energy and maritime security in the face of a rising China.
The Biden administration pledged as it opened a two-day summit on Thursday with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, part of a campaign to show that the United States still prioritises Asia despite months of intense focus on repelling Russia's assault on Ukraine.
The White House announced some $150 million in new initiatives –– a modest sum compared with a $40 billion package for Ukraine and with the billions pumped into the region by China, which has surpassed the United States as ASEAN's largest trading partner.
But the United States 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.
"I hope this meeting can build momentum for the return of the US presence in the region," Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a forum of the US-ASEAN Business Council before the leaders headed to a White House dinner.
The White House said it was committing $60 million to new maritime initiatives that will include the deployment of a Coast Guard cutter and personnel to fight crime on the sea.
Efforts will include countering illegal fishing and the use of forced labor, a US official said.
The waters around the South China Sea are among the busiest in the world, connecting the economic powerhouses of Asia with the energy supplies of the Middle East, and the area is rife with territorial disputes with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
The White House said it was also devoting $40 million to invest in clean energy in economically diverse Southeast Asia and said the United States was working with the private sector to raise up to $2 billion.
Another initiative –– launched as Biden separately held a virtual summit on Covid –– includes a project to test for emerging respiratory diseases in urban Southeast Asia through a new office in Hanoi of the US Centers for Disease Control.
Meeting with Myanmar opposition
Southeast Asia has often been seen as a victim of its own success, with the United States focused elsewhere for lack of pressing problems in the region.
But in Myanmar, once hailed as a democratic success story, the United States has been ratcheting up pressure since the junta in February last year toppled Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.
In a symbolic statement, the United States will represent Myanmar with an empty chair at the summit.
As leaders gathered in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with representatives of the democratic leadership in exile, the National Unity Government, including its foreign minister, Zin Mar Aung.
Sherman said the United States will "continue to work closely with ASEAN and other partners in pressing for a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Burma," a State Department statement said, using Myanmar's former name of Burma.
Human Rights Watch said that the focus on Myanmar was insufficient and that Biden should address democratic backsliding across Southeast Asia.
Leaders visiting the White House included Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, who is ASEAN's current chair.
"If the US doesn't publicly raise human rights concerns during meetings, the message will be that human rights abuses are now tolerated in the name of forging alliances to counter China," said John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director.