US President Joe Biden said on Friday a first summit in Washington with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marked the launch of a “new era” in the relationship between the United States and the 10-nation bloc.
In a joint 28-point “vision statement” after a two-day meeting, the two sides took what analysts called a symbolic step of committing to raise their relationship from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in November.
On Ukraine they reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity,” wording that a regional expert said went further than past ASEAN statements. The statement did not condemn Russia by name for its Feb. 24 invasion.
The summit marked the first time ASEAN leaders gathered as a group in Washington and their first meeting hosted by a U.S. president since 2016.
Biden’s administration hopes the effort will show that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it views as its main competitor, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He was also hoping to persuade ASEAN countries to toughen their stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden told the ASEAN leaders that “a great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written in the ASEAN countries, and our relationship with you is the future, in the coming years and decades.”
Biden called the U.S.-ASEAN partnership “critical” and said: “We’re launching a new era – a new era – in U.S.-ASEAN relations.”
Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would remain in Southeast Asia for “generations” and stressed the need to maintain freedom of the seas, which the United States says is challenged by China.
“The United States and ASEAN have shared a vision for this region, and together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms,” Harris said.
Neither she nor Biden mentioned China by name. The United States has accused China of using coercion against its neighbors.
Harris said Washington would continue to respond with ASEAN to the threat of COVID-19, having already donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region. She said both sides needed to show collective ambition on climate change, accelerate the transition to clean energy, and meet infrastructure needs sustainably.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar’s leader was excluded from the summit over a coup last year. U.S. treaty ally the Philippines, in transition after an election, was represented at the meeting by its foreign minister.