Biden names envoy to SE Asia bloc, stressing US attention

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Friday announced he’s nominating one of his top national security aides as ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, aiming to underscore his administration’s commitment to the Pacific region.

Biden announced his decision to nominate Yohannes Abraham, chief of staff to the White House National Security Council, to serve as the U.S. representative to the 10-country bloc as he wrapped up talks with leaders of ASEAN, who gathered in Washington for a two-day “special summit.”

Biden’s efforts to put greater emphasis on the Pacific region have been overtaken in recent months by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With his nomination of an ambassador to ASEAN — the U.S. is currently represented by a chargé d’affaires — the president sought to send the message that he’s serious about recalibrating American foreign policy to have greater focus on Asia and to strengthen the U.S. role as a counterweight to China’s rapid rise in the region.

Biden described Abraham as one of his closest advisers

“I’m a little concerned to send him because he knows how I think. He knows so much about me,” Biden joked with the ASEAN leaders about Abraham. “But all kidding aside, I think you’re going to find him completely knowledgeable, and he speaks for me and he speaks for my administration.”

Abraham’s nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, came after the White House announced on Thursday that the United States would commit more than $150 million for new projects to bolster Southeast Asia’s climate, maritime and public health infrastructure.

Earlier on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris met with the ASEAN leaders and underscored that “the United States and ASEAN have shared a vision for this region, and together will guard against threats to international rules and norms.“ That comment, during a session that focused in part on freedom of the seas, appeared to reference China’s increasingly aggressive military actions in the South China Sea and beyond.

China has stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, as well as the East China Sea, where a dispute about uninhabited islets administered by Japan but claimed by China has been a long-simmering issue.

“We stand with our allies and partners in defending the maritime rules-based order, which includes freedom of navigation and international law,” Harris declared.

Biden has increased attention to improving relations with Pacific nations in his presidency, as he and top national security officials have made clear they see a rising China as the most threatening economic and national security adversary to the United States.

Biden in his remarks to the leaders at the State Department said that strengthening the U.S. relationship with ASEAN is “at the very heart” of his foreign policy strategy.

“An Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, and resilient and secure is what we’re all seeking,” Biden said.

White House officials said Biden spoke with ASEAN leaders in private about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A post-summit joint statement issued by the U.S. and ASEAN participants made no direct mention of Russia, adding that “with regard to Ukraine” the participants “reaffirm our respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity.”

Some ASEAN members — Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos — for years have depended on Russia for military hardware. With the exception of Singapore — the only member of the 10-member group to impose direct sanctions against Moscow — the alliance has avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin or Russia’s prosecution of the war.

Indonesia has been guarded in its public comments on the invasion, and the Philippines has made clear it won’t impose sanctions against Russia. Thailand joined a United Nations vote against the invasion of Ukraine but has maintained a position of neutrality in the war.

“Our hope is to see the war in Ukraine stop as soon as possible, and we give the peaceful resolution of a conflict a chance to succeed,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters on Friday at the start of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Because we know that if the war continues, all of us will suffer.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, currently president of the Group of 20 — the world’s largest economies — has resisted Biden’s calls to bar Russia from this fall’s summit in Bali. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday reiterated that Biden maintains his position that it “should not be business as usual at the G-20” and Putin should be disinvited.

Another potential sticking point in U.S. relations is a Commerce Department investigation that could result in steep tariffs on solar panels and parts imported from four Southeast Asian countries: Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. A California-based solar company says Chinese producers are unfairly skirting U.S. duties by performing minor assembly in the four smaller countries.

Solar industry groups and other clean energy advocates have condemned the probe, which they say could jeopardize the industry’s future and Biden’s clean energy agenda. About 80 percent of the panels used by U.S. companies trace back to Southeast Asia, according to industry groups. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo says the inquiry is following a process set by law.

The ASEAN nations whose leaders attended the summit are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The top leaders from ASEAN member Myanmar were barred, while outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte dispatched Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to represent his government.

The summit came just before Biden’s trip next week to South Korea and Japan — his first visit to Asia as president. He’ll hold talks with those two countries’ leaders and also meet during the trip with leaders from the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance known as the Quad, made up of Australia, India and Japan in addition to the U.S.

Harris told the ASEAN leaders the Biden administration “recognizes the vital strategic importance” of the bloc. She said, “The United States will be present and continue to be engaged in Southeast Asia for generations to come.”

Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed reporting.