Biden pledges $150m to ASEAN with eye on China

US President Joe Biden opened a summit of Southeast Asian leaders with a pledge to spend $150m on infrastructure, security and the anti-pandemic efforts, as Washington seeks to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

Biden on Thursday kicked off a two-day summit with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington with a dinner at the White House ahead of talks at the State Department on Friday.

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

China in November pledged $1.5bn in development assistance to the ASEAN countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines – over three years to fight COVID and support economic recovery.

“The Biden administration got off to a late start in demonstrating its commitment to Southeast Asia and was relatively neglectful of the region until the second half of last year,” Amalina Anuar, a senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.

“ASEAN leaders will likely welcome this round of promised development assistance and linkages. This is partly because it’s a sign of Washington’s continued engagement and desire to be more present in the region, and partly because ASEAN members tend to prioritise economic cooperation.”

Washington’s financial commitment includes a $40m investment to reduce the carbon footprint of the region’s power supply, $60m in maritime security, and $15m in health funding to tackle COVID-19 and future pandemics, an official said. Other funding will be aimed at helping countries develop the digital economy and legal frameworks for artificial intelligence.

The US Coast Guard will also deploy a ship to the region to help local fleets counter what Washington and countries in the region have described as China’s illegal fishing.

Biden is working on more initiatives, including “Build Back Better World” infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), although neither has been finalised.

Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said ASEAN leaders, while “polite and publically grateful”, would likely be underwhelmed by the scale of the commitment.

“There are ways of combatting PRC influence, but it requires a long term strategic vision as well as collaboration with others that Washington seems ill equipped to do,” Bisley told Al Jazeera, referring to China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.

“One of the main problems that the US and indeed others face is that ASEAN does not have a singular set of priorities. The diversity of interests among the ASEAN members mean that they each have often quite different aims to advance and interests to protect and finding common ground is very hard. Above all else the one shared interest they have is for Sino-American rivalry to be scaled back but that is unlikely any time soon.”

Friction with China

The summit marks the first time that ASEAN’s leaders have gathered as a group at the White House and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.

Eight ASEAN leaders are expected to take part in the talks. Myanmar’s leader was excluded over a coup last year and the Philippines is in transition after an election, though Biden spoke to the country’s president-elect, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, on Wednesday. The country was represented by its foreign affairs secretary at the White House.

ASEAN leaders also visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for a lunch with congressional leaders.

Southeast Asian countries share many of Washington’s concerns about China.

China’s claim to more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important shipping passageways, has stoked tensions with many of its regional neighbours, especially Vietnam and the Philippines.

Countries in the region, however, have also been frustrated by Washington’s level of economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on Thursday said the US should adopt “a more active trade and investment agenda with ASEAN, which will benefit the U.S. economically and strategically”.

The IPEF will be launched on Biden’s trip to Japan and South Korea next week, although the initiative does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian countries seek, due to the US president’s concerns about American jobs.

“Washington is in a very tough position, as what ASEAN member-states seek is market access,” Michael Montesano, a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.

“Offering such access is a crucial instrument of economic diplomacy, one with more effectiveness than perhaps any other in these times. And it is an instrument that domestic politics in the US makes it impossible for Washington to use, at least in the form of meaningful trade agreements.”

Analysts say ASEAN countries remain cautious about aligning with Washington against Beijing due to their reliance on Chinese trade and investment and relatively limited US economic incentives.

“I would say that any pledge of assistance is better than no offer of assistance, but $150 million spread across multiple objectives for a region that includes 10 countries is a relatively small amount of money,” Deborah Elms, president of the Asia Business Trade Association, told Al Jazeera.

“ASEAN tends to view economic issues as the key priority. US engagement in the region has to focus on trade and investment.”

Anuar, the RSIS analyst, said the success of Washington’s outreach will depend on which metrics are considered.

“Washington has a good chance at offering alternatives to China’s BRI in certain areas, as well as strengthening its relationship with ASEAN and its members,” she said, referring to the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s signature cross-continental infrastructure drive.

“But if we’re talking about persuading ASEAN members to align with the US, it’s doubtful that ASEAN members would move away from neutrality. ASEAN and China are in the same neighbourhood and are interdependent in many ways, not least economically. ASEAN is not looking to exclude China from the regional architecture because of this.”