BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – US President Joe Biden announced plans to provide up to US$102 million to expand the US strategic partnership with ASEAN through health, climate, economic and education programmes.

He made the announcement during the ASEAN-US Summit hosted by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah on Tuesday night.

Of the total, US$40 million will go to an initiative to help address the current COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen ASEAN’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to future outbreaks of infectious diseases, a White House fact sheet said.

A further US$20.5 million will go to help tackle the climate crisis and up to US$20 million to support cooperation on trade and innovation. Another US$17.5 million is earmarked for education projects and US$4 million to promote gender equality and equity.

Biden’s participation in the virtual summit marks the first time in four years that Washington has engaged at the top level with ASEAN.

US-ASEAN relations took a back seat under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who attended an ASEAN-US meeting just once during his four-year-term.

Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah delivers his remarks at the ASEAN-US Summit on Oct 26, 2021. Host Photo.

In his opening remarks to the summit, Biden reassured leaders of US commitment to Southeast Asia: “You can expect to see us showing up,” he said. “You can expect to see me personally showing up and reaching out to you.”

He also said the United States respects ASEAN’s central role in the Indo-Pacific, but made no mention of a major defence pact he signed with the UK and Australia last month, which analysts say could undermine ASEAN’s influence in the region and intensify power rivalry with China.

“Our partnership is essential in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which has been the foundation of our shared security and prosperity for many decades,” Biden said.

He also referred to a “shared vision for a region where every country can compete and succeed on a level playing field and all nations, no matter how big or powerful, abide by the law.”

However, he avoided specific mention of China, as Washington works to set up a virtual summit between the US president and Chinese leader Xi Jinping later this year.

On Wednesday, Biden will participate in the broader East Asia Summit, which brings together ASEAN and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

Brunei’s monarch said US economic engagement is vital to the region — the United States is the largest single investor in Southeast Asia and second largest trading partner after China.

However, Biden has so far given no indication of returning to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade framework that was devised by the Obama administration, but from which Trump later withdrew in 2017.

– With additional reporting from Reuters