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US expresses commitment to Southeast Asian allies in key summit

Vice President Kamala Harris tells Southeast Asian leaders that Washington will be engaged in region ‘for generations’.

The United States is committed to being engaged in Southeast Asia for the long haul, Vice President Kamala Harris has said, as she welcomed regional leaders at a summit in Washington, DC.

Speaking at the Department of State on Friday, Harris told leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the Biden administration “recognises the vital strategic importance of your region, a role that will only grow with time”.

“As an Indo-Pacific nation, the United States will be present and continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come,” she said.

The summit marks the first time ASEAN leaders have been invited to the White House in 45 years. In 2016, President Obama was the first US leader to host the summit, then held in Rancho Mirage, California.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is on the agenda, the Biden administration hopes to demonstrate that Washington remains focused on the Asia-Pacific as Beijing becomes an increasingly powerful player in the region.

Tensions have grown between China and the US in recent years over a host of issues, including Taiwan and the South China Sea, the latter of which China claims almost entirely as its own, despite competing claims from other countries in the region.

The war in Ukraine has tested those already shaky ties, with senior US officials including President Joe Biden himself repeatedly warning the Chinese government against aiding Russia in its continuing invasion.

The opening session of the ASEAN meeting at the Department of State on Friday focused on maritime security and health issues, Harris said, while a later one was centred on climate and clean energy.

She did not mention China directly, but said the US stood with its “allies and partners in defending the maritime rules-based order, which includes freedom of navigation and international law”.

Biden, who took office in January 2021 saying that his top foreign policy priority would be global competition with China, will address the leaders later on Friday.

His administration already promised $150m in new initiatives during the summit, including support for maritime security, with the US Coast Guard to deploy a cutter in Southeast Asia to help fight illegal fishing and other crime.

Biden is expected to announce a broader package, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, when he travels next week to Japan and South Korea.

Before a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she hoped “to see synergy between the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework with implementation of cooperation under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.

Marsudi also stressed that Indonesia, which is hosting a G20 summit in July, hoped to see the war in Ukraine come to an end as soon as possible.

Indonesia has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the meeting, despite US calls to isolate him, but in a compromise said it would also welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“On the global issue, I would like to reiterate the very consistent of the principle of Indonesia on the importance of respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty of a country to another country,” said Marsudi, according to a Department of State readout.

“Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible, and we give the peaceful resolution of a conflict a chance to succeed. Because we know that if the war continues, all of us will suffer.”

For his part, Blinken thanked Marsudi for Indonesia’s leadership in the region.

“We are working together across the board to advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. We’re working to strengthen economic ties among countries in the region. We’re working together to deal with global challenges, like COVID-19,” he said.

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