America set to invest $150 million in Southeast Asia

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Ahead of the Quad Summit in Tokyo this month, the Biden administration has announced it will invest $150 million in Southeast Asian countries as part of efforts to boost economic engagement in the region with an eye toward balancing Chinese influence.

The White House announced a range of initiatives on climate change, infrastructure and maritime security after US president Joe Biden held a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Washington. This was Asean‘s maiden summit in the US capital. The initiatives include $60 million for maritime cooperation. The US Coast Guard will deploy assets and more personnel to the Indo-Pacific for maritime training and capacity building. This includes a US Coast Guard attache who will be assigned to the US mission to Asean.

The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies will reportedly set up an institute to train three officials from each of the 10 Asean states in Washington every year. The US will also launch a regional initiative to support innovation, strengthen digital economy rulemaking, facilitate public-private connections, boost digital policymaking and the adoption of global standards in artificial intelligence in the Asean region.

The Quad Summit is expected to focus on building synergies with Southeast Asia as part of widening engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, according to persons familiar with the matter.

Strengthening ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Tokyo for the summit, which is expected to be held May 24. He may also hold standalone bilateral meetings with Quad leaders.

The US package comes seven months after Biden assured Asean leaders that he would provide up to $102 million in investments for countries in the region. Critics, however, are of opinion that the amount is paltry compared with Chinese investments there.

Even Japan, a close ally of the US, wants Washington to increase its economic footprint in Southeast Asia. So far, the Biden administration has been focusing on the Quad and European Union allies to balance China.

ET has learnt that the US wants to step up its game in Southeast Asia in the face of China’s growing inroads in the region. Certain Fortune 500 companies are investing in the Asean region and European investments are said to be on the rise. The lockdown in China has hampered the expansion of Chinese capital in Southeast Asia, which Beijing considers part of its neighbourhood. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are witnessing an increase in US and European investment. The US is reportedly reengaging with Thailand in an attempt to revive ties. The Philippines, a longstanding US ally, is expected to strengthen its relationship with Washington to balance China.

The Southeast Asian countries will be looking for concrete signs of US commitment, particularly on trade and investment, which is currently minimal, said people from the region. Responding to Biden’s move, the Chinese foreign ministry said it welcomed any cooperation that promotes sustainable development and prosperity in the region. “China and Asean do not engage in zero-sum games and do not promote bloc confrontation,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Friday.