US President Joe Biden said on Friday a first summit in Washington with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) marked the launch of a "new era" in the relationship between the United States and the 10-nation bloc.
Addressing Asean leaders on the second day of a two-day meeting, Biden said "a great deal of history of our world in the next 50 years is going to be written in the Asean countries, and our relationship with you is the future, in the coming years and decades."
The summit marked the first time Asean leaders gathered as a group in Washington and their first meeting hosted by a US president since 2016.
Biden's administration hopes the effort will show that the United States remains focused on the Indo-Pacific and the long-term challenge of China, which it views as its main competitor, despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"We're launching a new era - a new era - in US-Asean relations," Biden said, calling the US-Asean partnership "critical."
Earlier, US Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would remain in Southeast Asia for generations and stressed the need to maintain freedom of the seas, which the United States says is challenged by China.
"The United States and Asean have shared a vision for this region, and together we will guard against threats to international rules and norms," Harris said.
Neither she nor Biden mentioned China by name. The United States has accused China of using coercion against its neighbours.
Harris said the United States would continue to respond with Asean to the threat of Covid-19, having already donated more than 115 million vaccine doses to the region. Harris also said the United States and Asean need to show collective ambition on the climate issue, accelerate the transition to clean energy, and meet infrastructure needs sustainably.
Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, though Myanmar's leader was excluded from the summit over a coup last year and US treaty ally the Philippines is in transition after an election and is represented by its foreign minister.
Biden hosted a dinner for the leaders at the White House on Thursday, and his administration promised $150 million for areas including infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and clean energy.
New US commitments will include deployment of a US Coast Guard vessel to the region to help counter what the United States and regional countries have described as China's illegal fishing.
US spending pales in comparison to that of China, which in November alone pledged $1.5 billion in development assistance for Asean over three years to fight Covid-19 and fuel economic recovery.
Biden on Friday announced the nomination of a new ambassador to Asean, Yohannes Abraham, currently chief of staff on his National Security Council, to fill a post vacant since the start of his predecessor Donald Trump's administration in 2017. Biden also is working on more initiatives, including "Build Back Better World" infrastructure investment and an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Neither is finalised.
Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the summit was largely about symbolism but economics remained the missing component, with IPEF not expected to be launched until Biden visits Japan later in May.
"Everyone seems happy and the diplomatic message of commitment is landing. But ... a modest, to put it kindly, $150 million isn't going to impress anyone," Poling said. "That leaves a lot riding on IPEF."
Russia's invasion was also on the agenda with Asean, with the United States hoping to persuade Asean countries to do more to push back against Moscow.
Asean countries share many US concerns about China's assertiveness, including its claim of sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea where Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have rival claims. They also remain cautious about siding more firmly with the United States, given their predominant economic ties with China and limited American economic incentives.
They have been frustrated by a US delay in detailing plans for economic engagement since Trump quit a regional trade pact in 2017.
Biden first announced the intention to create IPEF at a virtual summit with Asean leaders in October.
Analysts and diplomats have said only two of the 10 Asean countries - Singapore and the Philippines - are expected to be among the initial group to sign up for negotiations under IPEF, which does not currently offer the expanded market access Asian nations want given Biden's concern for American jobs.