During a summit Tuesday with a unified bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations, President Joe Biden announced a $100 million initiative that he said is a measure of support for the region in the face of growing Chinese influence.
Biden made the pledge at the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit, a yearly gathering of the countries in the alliance — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Biden’s participation is the first for a U.S. president at the summit in four years. Former President Donald Trump attended the 2017 event, but skipped the rest during his presidency.
The White House said the fiscal commitment, $102 million, will pay for various items and represents the United States’ support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Officials said the U.S. funds will help pay for things like health and climate measures, economic initiatives and education. COVID-19 remains one of the highest items on the list.
“Our continued cooperation is growing only more important … as we strive together to reach the challenges that shape the 21st century,” Biden said at the start of the summit, which he attended remotely.
“Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, taking on the climate crisis, strengthening our cyber defenses, producing new technologies, upholding freedom of the seas and commerce and so much more.”
The White House said Biden will provide $40 million in new efforts to accelerate joint research, strengthen health system capacity and “develop the next generation of human capital in health” through the U.S.-ASEAN Health Futures initiative.
“The health futures initiative will both help address the current pandemic and strengthen ASEAN’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to future zoonotic and other infectious disease outbreaks,” the White House said in a statement.
About $20 million is dedicated to help with climate action in Southeast Asia, and includes a joint program and other initiatives between the United States and ASEAN countries. Roughly $10 million will be available in loans for trade and innovation.
U.S. officials said the rest of the money will be connected to efforts in education, English language teacher training and promoting gender equality and equity.
The White House identified numerous areas that the money could support, such as helping ASEAN nations respond to the COVID-19 crisis, funding infectious diseases research, controlling tuberculosis in the region, preventing future outbreaks and upgrading pharmaceutical standards.
“I want you all to hear directly from me, the importance the United States places on the relationship with ASEAN. You can expect to see us showing up. You can expect to see me personally showing up and reaching out to you,” Biden told the ASEAN representatives during the summit. “You can expect to see the United States deepening our longstanding cooperation.”
Biden did not specifically mention China, but his words echoed concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the region.
“Our bottom line is that ASEAN is essential to the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific. It’s a linchpin for maintaining the resilience, the prosperity and security of our shared region. … All nations, no matter how big and powerful, will abide by the law.”
The Southeast Asian bloc, founded in 1967, said it’s excluded Myanmar from this year’s summit due to the ongoing military takeover that began early this year.
The alliance said there has been “insufficient progress” toward peace in Myanmar, where the junta sacked the entire civilian government on Feb. 1 — including leader Aung San Suu Kyi — and is presently trying them on various criminal charges.
The military has said the coup was a response to corruption and fraud during the last parliamentary elections last fall that kept Suu Kyi and her ruling party in power. ASEAN said the embattled nation could rejoin once it’s returned to “normalcy.”
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