Asean Latest: Leaders Express Disappointment Over Biden’s Snub

Chinese Premier Li Qiang highlighted his country’s strong ties with Southeast Asia during a meeting on Wednesday with the leaders of a region that’s challenged by an increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape.

(Bloomberg) — Chinese Premier Li Qiang highlighted his country’s strong ties with Southeast Asia during a meeting on Wednesday with the leaders of a region that’s challenged by an increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo opened the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s summit on Tuesday saying the region must not become a proxy for any power as the US and China compete for influence. At the meeting Wednesday with Vice President Kamala Harris, the Asean chair urged the US to be a “positive force” in the region.

Asean leaders have expressed anxiety about the prospect of a conflict in Asia over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, while also being under pressure to address the rising violence in Myanmar. The bloc issued a statement Wednesday expressing disappointment over the absence of President Joe Biden. 

Biden’s snub comes as the US is seeking to reshape engagement with its regional allies into a security network that China says is meant to counter its rise. It also stirred some tensions on the sidelines of Harris’ bilateral meeting with Jokowi. Meanwhile, China announced fresh military drills in the East China Sea the previous day.

Whether the leaders can make progress resolving any of these issues remains to be seen, particularly with Biden skipping the event in favor of a trip to India for the Group of 20, where his Russian and Chinese counterparts will be absent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida were in attendance at Asean.

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Canada, Asean to Finish Free Trade Pact Soon, Trudeau Says (4:50 p.m.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Southeast Asian leaders that Canada looks forward to concluding a new free trade pact with the region “in the near term,” and in “the longer term, would very much like to join Asean-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit.”

Bloc’s Stance on Sea Dispute Largely Unchanged (4:30 p.m.)

Asean’s position on the South China Sea remained largely unchanged in the chair statement issued Wednesday despite growing protests from countries like the Philippines and Vietnam over Chinese incursions.

The statement that normally accompanies the Asean Summit reiterated that members were concerned over “the land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including actions that put the safety of all persons at risk” in the disputed waterways. Omitted from the section this time, however, was a line in last year’s iteration that “welcomed ongoing efforts to strengthen cooperation between Asean and China.”

This year, the bloc further said it was concerned “over the intensifying geopolitical tensions in the region.”

China Urges Japan to Act Responsibly on Wastewater (4:06 p.m.)

China’s Li urged Japan’s Kishida to act responsibly regarding the disposal of treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant, Xinhua News reported. He made the comments during the Asean + 3 Summit, which also includes South Korea. 

The two premiers also held a brief “pull-aside” chat ahead of the meeting, at which Kishida emphasized the importance of constructive and stable ties, and restated Japan’s position on the water disposal.

Jokowi Urges US to Be a ‘Positive Force’ in Region (3:41 p.m.)

The Indonesian president encouraged the US to be a “positive force in creating a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific through inclusive concrete cooperation” during an Asean meeting with Vice President Harris.

Southeast Asia is forecast to be a “lifeblood of international trade” by 2045 and a “strong and sustainable partnership” will benefit both Asean the US, Jokowi said. “However, this partnership will only be realized if there is a strong commitment to maintain regional peace and stability.”

Journalist Asking About Biden’s Absence Stirs Tension (3:29 p.m.)

A journalist from the Voice of America tried to ask about Biden’s absence during bilateral talks between Harris and Jokowi, which led the Asean security team to attempt to physically remove her. The US Vice President’s media team defended the journalist as the security team attempted to bar her from the US-Asean Summit.

Harris Sees ‘Strong and Growing Ties’ With Indonesia (3:10 p.m.)

The US Vice President sees “strong and growing ties” with Indonesia, and said Washington was keen to expand its critical minerals links with the Southeast Asian nation. 

On security, Harris said the US stood with Indonesia in “defense of the international rules based order,” making particular mention of supporting Jakarta’s maritime security agency.

Asean Expresses Disappointment Over Biden No-Show (2:57 p.m.)

Asean issued a statement expressing disappointment over the absence of Biden from the summit, saying it had hoped he would turn up as he did in Cambodia last year.

“Asean leaders initially hoped that the 43rd Asean Summit with dialogue partners would be attended by President Biden,” reads a statement from the group. “However, the White House had announced from the outset that the POTUS would directly go to New Delhi, India.”

Asean, China Boost Ties In Enhanced Trade Deal (1:57 p.m.)

Asean leaders are boosting economic ties with China through an improved trade deal that focuses on supply chain as well as the digital and green sectors, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters. The bloc together with China also seeks to deepen cooperation on agriculture, e-commerce and seek early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.

China Urges Asian Leaders Against Picking Sides (1:45 p.m.)

Li urged leaders to avoid the formation of confrontational blocs in the region, and instead embrace commonalities shared between Asian nations, while South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol encouraged the resumption of a trilateral gathering with Japan and China.

The remarks were made during a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders that also included Japan’s Kishida. “What is essential now is to oppose picking sides, oppose bloc confrontation and oppose a new Cold War, ensure that disagreements and disputes among countries are properly handled,” Li said.

Myanmar Junta Plays Down Asean Chair Loss (10:26 a.m.)

Myanmar’s junta played down the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ decision to strip it of the chairmanship in 2026 as the bloc condemned the violence in the country.

While Asean has led diplomatic efforts to end the violence in Myanmar, it remains deeply divided over how to engage a military that has killed thousands in its country. The bloc has come under scrutiny for its slow handling of the Myanmar crisis using a five-point consensus that its leaders formally agreed to continue pursuing on Tuesday.

Albanese Laments Slow Pace of Regional Investment (10:00 a.m.)

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese admitted on Wednesday that Australia’s economic engagement with Southeast Asia had “not kept pace” with the region’s growth.

“Working together, the peace, stability and security of this region – and the Indo-Pacific – can be assured,” he said at the Asean Indo-Pacific forum where he also announced a A$95 million ($60 million) plan to boost economic ties with Southeast Asia. That includes A$70 million over four years to create specialist teams to strike up investment deals between Australia and the region.

Japan Seeks China Dialogue at Asean (9:02 a.m.)

Japan is seeking talks with China to resolve a dispute over the disposal of treated wastewater from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant, with Prime Minister Kishida and Premier Li set to cross paths at the Asean summit. 

Kishida told the Asean Indo-Pacific Forum this morning that his country’s principles on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific are aligned with Asean, especially on the importance of transparency, inclusivity and the rule of law. He outlined six areas where Japan seeks to deepen cooperation with Asean, including infrastructure.

Li Highlights Strong Ties (8:40 a.m.)

The Chinese Premier heralded strong relations with Southeast Asia during a meeting with its leaders on Wednesday, saying cooperation “will be as firm as ever” so long as the relationship stays on the right path.

Trade topped $970 billion last year, more than double that of a year ago, he said. Despite tensions in the South China Sea, Li said both sides “have a relentless pursuit of peace” and they can “take real actions to preserve regional stability.”

Singapore PM Seeks Continued Asean Relevance (7:33 a.m.)

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged Asean to increase engagement with “external partners in an open and inclusive way.” In a Facebook post Wednesday, he said the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific creates a platform to do so. He also sought to “ensure Asean’s continued relevance and competitiveness in a post-pandemic world.”

“This is a period of great geopolitical and economic uncertainty,” Lee said. “How Asean responds to today’s challenges will determine whether Asean centrality can hold in the years ahead.”

–With assistance from Isabel Reynolds, Chandra Asmara, Faris Mokhtar and Norman Harsono.

(Updates with Canada PM remaks on free trade pact soon.)

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