Biden appoints envoy for Southeast Asia bloc, drawing US attention

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Friday that he is appointing one of his top national security aides to serve as ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in the to underscore his administration’s commitment to the Pacific region.

Biden announced his decision to appoint White House National Security Council chief of staff Yohannes Abraham to serve as the U.S. representative to the 10-nation bloc as he wraps up talks with ASEAN leaders, who gathered in Washington for a two-day “special summit.”

Biden’s efforts to put more emphasis on the Pacific region have been overtaken in recent months by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With his appointment of an ambassador to ASEAN – the US is currently represented by a charge d’affaires – the president has sought to send the message that he is serious about recalibrating US foreign policy to focus more on Asia and strengthen the role of the United States as a counterweight to China’s rapid rise in the region.

Biden described Abraham as one of his closest advisers

“I’m a bit worried about sending him because he knows what I’m thinking. He knows so much about me,” Biden joked with ASEAN leaders about Abraham. “But kidding aside, I think you’re going to find him completely competent, and he speaks for me and he speaks for my administration.”

Abraham’s appointment, which requires Senate confirmation, came after the White House announced on Thursday that the United States would commit more than $150 million to new projects to strengthen climate, maritime and health infrastructure. Southeast Asian public.

Earlier on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris met with ASEAN leaders and stressed that “the United States and ASEAN have shared a vision for this region and together will guard against threats to rules and international standards”. That comment, in a session focusing in part on freedom of the seas, appeared to refer to China’s increasingly aggressive military actions in the South China Sea and beyond.

China has boosted its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, as well as in the East China Sea, where a dispute over uninhabited islets administered by Japan but claimed by China is a long-simmering issue.

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“We stand with our allies and partners in upholding the rules-based maritime order, which includes freedom of navigation and international law,” Harris said.

Biden has paid increased attention to improving relations with Pacific countries during his presidency, as he and senior national security officials have made it clear they view a rising China as the most threatening adversary. for the economy and national security of the United States.

Biden, in his remarks to State Department leaders, said strengthening U.S. relations with ASEAN is “at the very heart” of his foreign policy strategy.

“A free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific is what we all seek,” Biden said.

White House officials said Biden spoke privately with ASEAN leaders about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A post-summit joint statement released by the US and ASEAN participants made no direct mention of Russia, adding that “with regard to Ukraine”, the participants “reaffirm our respect for the sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity”.

Some ASEAN members – Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos – have depended on Russia for military hardware for years. With the exception of Singapore – the only member of the Group of 10 to impose direct sanctions on Moscow – the alliance has avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin or Russia’s continued war.

Indonesia was reserved in its public comments on the invasion, and the Philippines made it clear that it would not impose sanctions on Russia. Thailand joined in a United Nations vote against invading Ukraine, but maintained a position of neutrality in the war.

“Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine end as soon as possible, and we give the peaceful settlement of a conflict a chance to succeed,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters on Friday at the start. of a meeting with the US Secretary of State. State Antony Blinken. “Because we know that if the war continues, we will all suffer.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, currently chairman of the Group of 20 – the world’s largest economies – has resisted Biden’s calls to exclude Russia from this fall’s summit in Bali. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that Biden stands by his position that “business should not be business as usual at the G-20” and Putin should be disinvited.

Another potential sticking point in US relations is a Commerce Department investigation. this could lead to high tariffs on solar panels and parts imported from four Southeast Asian countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. A California-based solar company says Chinese producers are unfairly circumventing US duties by carrying out minor assembly in the four smaller countries.

Solar industry groups and other clean energy advocates have condemned the probe, which they say could jeopardize the future of the industry and Biden’s clean energy agenda. About 80% of panels used by U.S. companies can be traced back to Southeast Asia, according to industry groups. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the investigation was following a process set out by law.

ASEAN countries whose leaders attended the summit include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Top leaders of ASEAN member Myanmar were excluded, while incumbent Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to represent his government.

The summit took place just before Biden’s trip next week to South Korea and Japan – his first visit to Asia as president. He will meet with the leaders of these two countries and will also meet during the trip with the leaders of the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance known as the Quad, made up of Australia, India and Japan in addition to the United States.

Harris told ASEAN leaders that the Biden administration “recognizes the vital strategic importance” of the bloc. She said, “The United States will be present and will continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come.

Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed reporting.

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