The United States has announced new plans to expand maritime cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as ASEAN leaders gather in Washington for a special summit seen as a show of solidarity in regard to China.
ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the South China Sea — a waterway claimed almost entirely by Beijing, which has landfilled and militarized islets over the past decade.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is rolling out $60 million in new regional maritime initiatives that include the transfer of ships to Southeast Asian countries to increase the coastal nations’ capacity to enforce maritime law and counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
“We need to step up our game in Southeast Asia,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We need to work more closely with ASEAN.”
At a meeting Friday with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is working with the Southeast Asian bloc to “advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
Marsudi said her country holds to the principle of “respecting territorial sovereignty” and hopes the strategic partnership between Indonesia and the U.S. can “contribute to the peace, stability and prosperity” in the region.
A senior State Department official told VOA that the South China Sea is high on the agenda during the U.S.-ASEAN special summit.
“South China Sea is an issue of great concern,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jung Pak in an interview this week. “We’ve seen increasingly aggressive and coercive actions by PRC against claimant countries. And, you know, we continue to work with all of our allies and partners in the region and beyond to make sure that the South China Sea is free and open.”
PRC refers to the People’s Republic of China.
Later Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to host a working lunch with the leaders of ASEAN countries to discuss maritime security and other areas. Harris denounced China’s “unlawful claims” on the South China Sea during a speech in Singapore last August. She said China’s actions “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”
The Biden administration is preparing to roll out a comprehensive Indo-Pacific Economic Framework which would be its first major trade and economic initiative in the region since the Trump administration withdrew from negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The White House announced Thursday new initiatives of over $150 million that include investments in infrastructure, health security and education in ASEAN.