US not pressuring ASEAN nations to distance from Russia: official

Amber Wang, South China Morning Post

Posted at May 18 2022 02:57 AM | Updated as of May 18 2022 02:58 AM

Biden says US wants ‘new era’ in relations, promises greater cooperation on South China Sea

US President Joe Biden (center) poses with leaders of the US-ASEAN Special Summit during a family photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2022. Michael Reynolds, EPA-EFE/Pool/File
US President Joe Biden (center) poses with leaders of the US-ASEAN Special Summit during a family photo on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2022. Michael Reynolds, EPA-EFE/Pool/File

The US has not tried to persuade Asean countries to distance themselves from Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, a senior US official said on Tuesday during a briefing about the recently concluded US-Asean summit.

A statement issued after the summit did not mention Russia or the invasion, but said “we continue to reaffirm our respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity” and called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in Ukraine.

Some Asean nations have been reticent to condemn Vladimir Putin’s decision to start the war, while Indonesia, as host the Group of 20 summit later this year, refuses to exclude Putin from the gathering.

On Tuesday Edgard Kagan, special assistant to the US president and senior director for East Asia and Oceania on the National Security Council, said US President Joe Biden had discussed the importance of having a strong international response regarding the Ukraine war with Asean leaders.

“I don’t think that there was a particular focus on trying to persuade countries to distance themselves [from Russia]. I think that there was, however, focus on making sure the countries understood the US perspective,” he said during the press call on Tuesday.

“I think that we recognise that every country in the region has shown different history. And some of them have closer ties to Russia,” he said.

Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary in the Department of State bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who was also on the call, said there was a “strong consensus” among participating countries in outlining principles regarding Ukraine.

“I’m just quite gratified and impressed by the number of leaders that spoke out to express their concerns,” Kritenbrink said.

On Friday Biden told the summit the US was launching a “new era” in its relations with Asean amid China’s growing clout in the region, pledging to elevate cooperation on a range of aspects, from the digital economy to security in the South China Sea.

Kagan said it was important to expand US-Asean ties, which were “really critical” to Washington’s broader efforts in the Pacific.

“I think the president is very, very committed to the idea that we can’t allow ourselves to be overly focused on Ukraine,” he said.

“The administration needs to continue doing what it laid out from the very beginning of its time in office in terms of really focusing on the Indo-Pacific and expanding and strengthening our position and our relations in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

The joint statement said the US and Asean would step up maritime cooperation, including coordinating among maritime law agencies to curb illegal fishing and ensure freedom of navigation over the South China Sea.

The US is not a claimant in the disputed waters, sovereignty over which is contested by mainland China, several of its Southeast Asian neighbours and Taiwan.

However, Washington has long deployed military aircraft and vessels to the resource-rich waters for freedom-of-navigation operations, which have been denounced by Beijing as violating its sovereignty.

Southeast Asian nations have overlapping claims over several island groups in the South China Sea and are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s military build-up in the disputed waters.

“I would say it is perfectly natural that in a US-Asean summit that there would be a focus on maritime issues, particularly in the South China Sea,” Kritenbrink said.

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