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Biden Seeks to Keep China in Focus by Welcoming ASEAN Leaders


U.S. President Joe Biden answers questions from the news media at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2022.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will host Southeast Asian leaders in Washington this week as his administration seeks to show it can maintain its focus on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China despite the immediate crisis in Ukraine.

A two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) begins with a White House dinner on Thursday before talks at the State Department on Friday.

Up to eight of the 10 ASEAN leaders are expected. Myanmar's leader has been excluded over a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election.

It will be the first time leaders of ASEAN, created in some of the darkest days of the Cold War, have gathered as a group at the White House. President Barack Obama was the last U.S. leader to host them, at Sunnylands in California in 2016.

The summit comes ahead of Biden's May 20-24 visit to South Korea and Japan, which will include meetings with the other leaders of the Quad grouping of countries - India, Australia and Japan - who share U.S. concerns about China's ambitions to expand its influence in the region and globally.

Kate Rebholz, acting U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, told Washington's Stimson Center the summit would result in "an ambitious and forward-looking U.S.-ASEAN vision statement" and new initiatives, including partnerships in public health, climate and economic growth.

However, analysts and diplomats do not expect dramatic advances in what is shaping up to be a largely symbolic summit. They say a key headline is likely to be elevation of the current U.S.-ASEAN "strategic partnership" by adding a word to make it a "comprehensive" strategic partnership, bringing it into line with the description of ASEAN's ties with Australia and China.

But the fact the summit was being held at all despite the huge distraction of Ukraine was aimed squarely at China, which Washington says remains its key long-term foreign policy challenge, regardless of Russia's actions.

"The meeting is the message ... that the U.S. is in fact capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, and it's not distracted," Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary of Singapore's foreign ministry, told the Stimson event.

U.S. officials say the White House will be seeking more support for its Ukraine efforts and looking ahead to Biden's trip to Japan and South Korea this month, as well as expected visits to Southeast Asia later in the year.

White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said on Monday there would be "substantial" discussions with ASEAN on technology, education, infrastructure, and that Washington would soon announce plans to better battle illegal fishing in the Pacific.

ASEAN countries, several of which have competing claims with China in the South China Sea, will likely welcome such initiatives and are broadly keen to boost ties with Washington.

U.S. 'FALLS FLAT' ON ECONOMICS

However, they have been frustrated by the U.S. delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.

At a virtual summit with ASEAN last October, Biden said Washington would start talks about developing a regional economic framework, but diplomats say this is likely to feature only peripherally this week.

Japan's Washington ambassador said Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is likely to be formally launched in Japan, but its details were still under discussion.

Analysts and diplomats say only two of the 10 ASEAN countries - Singapore and the Philippines - are expected to be among the initial group of counties to sign up for the negotiations under IPEF, which does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries crave, given Biden's concern for American jobs.

There has also been some frustration that ASEAN leaders will get little personal time with Biden, with no bilateral meetings announced.

An adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since 1985 but making his first White House visit, told Reuters Biden should spend more time with leaders if he was serious about elevating ties with the region.

Kao Kim Hourn said Cambodia, which has close economic ties to China, would not "choose sides" between Washington and Beijing although U.S. investment in his country was growing. ASEAN, likewise, worked with both under its principle of "inclusiveness," he said.

Analysts say that even though ASEAN countries share U.S. concerns about China, they remain cautious about siding more firmly with Washington, given their predominant economic ties with Beijing and limited U.S. economic incentives.

"The U.S. does a pretty solid job on politics and security, but it falls flat on economics," said Gregory Poling of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It cannot effectively compete with China If it only brings guns and diplomacy to the table. It has to bring cash to put it bluntly, and we've not been good at doing that."

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