Biden hosts ASEAN leaders as he tries to show Pacific focus

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President Joe Biden and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) arrive for a group photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday kicked off the first-ever Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit to be held in Washington as his administration makes an extended effort to demonstrate that the United States has not lost focus on the Pacific even while dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As Biden welcomed leaders from eight ASEAN nations for a dinner to start the two-day “special summit,” the White House announced the United States would commit to more than $150 million in new projects to bolster Southeast Asia's climate, maritime and public health infrastructure.

A senior administration official, who previewed the announcement on the condition of anonymity, said the effort was meant to signal that the U.S. is looking to “step up our game in Southeast Asia.”

The gathering marked the group's first meeting at the White House in its 45-year history. Leaders will take part in more formal talks at the State Department on Friday.

The ASEAN nations include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The top leaders from ASEAN member Myanmar were barred from attending, while outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte dispatched Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to represent his government.

The summit comes before Biden's trip next week to South Korea and Japan — his first visit to Asia as president — for talks with those two countries' leaders. He also will meet during that trip with leaders from the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance with the U.S. known as the Quad: Australia, India and Japan.

Biden has tried to put greater focus on that alliance and improving relations with Pacific nations in the early going of his presidency as he sees a rising China as the most threatening economic and national security adversary to the United States.

Biden, who pledged to make the Pacific a greater focal point of U.S. policy, has seen his attempt at an “Asia pivot” complicated by the most serious fighting in Europe since World War II.

A White House Asia policy adviser said the administration remains committed to stepping up relations with Southeast Asian nations to address climate, economic and education initiatives.

“There has been a sense that in previous administrations that we had set off with a determined pace to focus on East Asia or in the Indo-Pacific and then find ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps draws (us) away a little bit,” Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the White House National Security Council, said Wednesday. “I think there is a deep sense that that can’t happen again.”

The new U.S. investment in ASEAN nations includes $40 million for clean energy infrastructure, $60 million for a new regional maritime initiative and $6 million to accelerate digital development in the region.

The White House also announced that Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies will launch a privately funded institute for rising leaders from ASEAN nations that will bring mid-career public sector officials to the United States for leadership training.

Duterte, the Philippines president, is skipping the summit because his country is in a political transition. ASEAN has barred Myanmar — in crisis since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 — from sending all but nongovernmental leaders for ASEAN meetings.

The Biden administration condemned the military coup that led to the ouster of Suu Kyi. She was convicted by a military court last month of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison in the first of several corruption cases against her. Suu Kyi has denied the charges.

Biden is also expected to address the situation in Myanmar with ASEAN leaders, as well as discuss China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Campbell said the administration expects the private talks will be “direct, polite, but maybe a little bit uncomfortable at times” as the U.S. and ASEAN members are not on the same page on all issues. He said the administration wants to see the group “play a more deeply engaged role in the critical diplomacy about next steps” in Myanmar.

Biden has called for Russia to be disinvited from November’s scheduled Group of 20 summit because of its invasion of Ukraine. ASEAN member Indonesia, which holds the presidency of the G-20 this year, has resisted the calls to pull Moscow’s invitation.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presumptive winner of this week’s Philippines presidential election, could test U.S. sway in the region. The son and namesake of the country’s former dictator has said he wants to pursue closer ties with China.

He has received congratulatory calls from both Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. His campaign said that Marcos Jr. also met on on Thursday with Chinese ambassador, Huang Xilian, who conveyed that Beijing wants to bring cooperation between the two country to “new heights.”

Campbell acknowledged that “historical considerations” could present “challenges” to the relationship with Marcos Jr., a seeming reference to long-standing litigation in the United States against the estate of his father, Ferdinand Marcos.

A U.S. appeals court in 1996 upheld damages of about $2 billion against the elder Marcos’ estate for the torture and killings of thousands of Filipinos. The court upheld a 1994 verdict of a jury in Hawaii, where he had fled after being forced from power in 1986. He died there in 1989.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday said she was “not aware” if the litigation or China came up in Biden’s call with Marcos Jr.