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US, ASEAN to upgrade ties amid China rise, eye maritime initiative

US President Joe Biden and the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are set to announce later Saturday that they will elevate their ties to a "comprehensive strategic partnership," underscoring Washington's deeper commitment to the region amid China's growing clout.

During the annual US-ASEAN summit in Cambodia, the two sides also plan to unveil new initiatives ranging from those concerning economic investment to maritime cooperation aimed at tackling illegal fishing, according to White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

The upgrade of the US-ASEAN ties from what has been a "strategic partnership" signals how the United States and China are jockeying for influence in the fast-growing Southeast Asian region. China already raised its relationship with the 10-member group to a similar status last year.

Biden arrived in Cambodia earlier Saturday to attend annual summits involving ASEAN, which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

He has emphasized the importance of "showing up," in contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump who disappointed Asia-Pacific allies by largely snubbing key meetings in the region.

The annual gatherings last year, which was Biden's first year in the presidency, were held virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic.

China is ASEAN's biggest trade partner, but its assertive behavior has also created friction, with Beijing having conflicting territorial claims with four members of the bloc -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea.

Sullivan said the United States is eager to enhance the region's so-called maritime domain awareness, such as by using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to track "dark shipping," which is when vessels' transponder systems are purposefully switched off to render their movements undetectable and is often a sign of potential illegal activity.

A similar maritime initiative already exists among the Quad group -- the United States, Japan, Australia and India -- that seeks to advance its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

According to Sullivan, Biden also hopes to discuss with ASEAN leaders the need for freedom of navigation and for ensuring that the United States is playing a "constructive role" in maintaining peace and stability in the region.

The situation in Myanmar following a military coup last year will also be on the agenda, with Biden using the opportunity to discuss coordination with ASEAN to raise pressure on the junta in a bid to bring the country closer to the democratic path it was on before the coup, Sullivan said.

In May, Biden hosted a special summit meeting with ASEAN leaders in Washington, at which they declared to forge a "comprehensive strategic partnership" during the US-ASEAN summit in November.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the US State Department's top diplomat for East Asia, explained earlier that the upgrade is not only important because of the "symbolism" there but also because "practical outcomes" will follow.