Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official Previewing New Initiatives from the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit

Asoka Elon

Via Teleconference

9:40 A.M. EDT

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And thanks, everyone, for joining.  We’re going to do a quick call to preview some of the new initiatives we’re going to be announcing at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.

This call is on background.  It is attributable to a “senior administration official.”  And the contents of this call are embargoed until 5:30 p.m. Eastern, U.S. time.

For your awareness and not for reporting, our speaker on the call today is [senior administration official].  He’s going to give some remarks at the top, and then we’re going to take some questions.  So, [senior administration official], over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you very, very much, [moderator].  And thank you to all who are participating.

We are very excited here today at the White House, because we’re about to kick off the first day of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.  And as you all know, this is the first time it’s been held in Washington, D.C., and at the White House in the history of the 45-year-long partnership.  

As I’m sure many of you are aware, at the end of last year, in October, at the U.S.-ASEAN virtual meeting that was held under Brunei’s chairmanship as part of the broader ASEAN Summit, and it also included the East Asia Summit, President Biden announced unprecedented investment of up to $102 million in U.S.-ASEAN relations.  It significantly expanded our cooperation on health, climate, science and innovation, trade facilitation, education, and more.  We are building on these efforts across the U.S. government at this summit and are very pleased that we’ve been able to work successfully with the different parts of our government as well as with our ASEAN partners. 

You will get a lengthy factsheet after this call that highlights the things that we are — we will be announcing and the deliverables from this, but I think that the key is to put in a broader context that this reflects, I think, a recognition on the part of the administration and — that we need to step up our game in Southeast Asia and that we need to — as part of that, we need to work more closely with ASEAN.

I think that the — you know, some of the key initiatives that we will be announcing as part of this and that you will see in the factsheet include the following:

First, the United States will invest $40 million that we believe can potentially mobilize up to $2 billion in blended financing for clean energy infrastructure in Southeast Asia that will decarbonize and strengthen the region’s power system, increase regional energy trade, and accelerate the deployment of clean energy technologies, which we see as critical not just to helping address climate change in this fast-growing region, but also is critical to supporting broad-based economic growth in the countries in Southeast Asia that we believe is important for them and also important for us. 

And we also plan to announce $60 million in new regional maritime initiatives.  And this reflects the great importance that maritime issues have in Southeast Asia and for Southeast Asian countries, as well as for the United States.

As — elements of this: The U.S. Coast Guard will deploy assets and assign additional personnel to the Indo-Pacific to help meet partners’ requests for maritime training and capacity-building, to include a U.S. Coast Guard attaché who will be assigned to the U.S. Mission to ASEAN. 

The Department of State, the Department of Labor, and the U.S. Coast Guard will launch new initiatives to help ASEAN counties counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and strengthen the capacity of ASEAN sectoral bodies to prevent forced labor in the fishing industry. 

The U.S. Coast Guard will deploy a cutter to Southeast Asia and Oceania for security cooperation and to operate as a training platform.  We will also prioritize the transfer of ships — excess defense articles — to Southeast Asian countries to increase the coastal nations’ maritime law enforcement capacity and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, which I’m sure you’ve all seen, or many of you will have seen, is also a key element in our Indo-Pacific strategy. 

And the Department of State and the U.S. Coast Guard will expand U.S. Coast Guard support to maritime law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia by placing a training team in the region for the first time with additional dedicated support from U.S.-based trainers.  

In addition to the clean energy and maritime issues, which we see as extremely important to the region and a very strong area of cooperation between the U.S. and ASEAN as an institution, as well as Southeast Asian nations in bilateral terms, we will also work to support efforts to accelerate digital development in the region, which would — builds on and benefit from the fact that the population of the United States and ASEAN nations together is a billion people. 

We will launch a new $6 million regional initiative that will support innovation, strengthen digital economy rulemaking, facilitate public-private connections, strengthen digital policymaking, and support the adoption of global standards in artificial intelligence. 

And the U.S. Trade and Development Agency will launch new initiatives intended to catalyze up to, and perhaps even slightly over, $13 billion in financing for clean energy products — projects that advance ASEAN’s net zero goals while leveraging over $1 billion in public and private financing for investment in digital infrastructure and smart cities in Southeast Asia.

And then, you know, we also see health as a critical area of cooperation.  And that was true before the pandemic, but it’s been even more reinforced as a result of our experiences during the pandemic.

As part of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through its new regional office in Hanoi, Vietnam, will enhance surveillance for pan-respiratory diseases in Southeast Asia.  

This is a $5 million program will increase coverage of large urban population sites and significantly expand access to genomic testing equipment and technology.  And then we will also announce that USAID will support up to $10 million in programs to advance early detection and community response for COVID-19, as well as tuberculosis and other airborne diseases across Southeast Asia.

In addition, we recognize that, you know, infrastructure and particularly transportation infrastructure remains a critical need in the region.  And, as a result, the Department of Transportation will launch new air, land, and maritime transportation programs that a — or a series of new land, air, and maritime transportation programs that promote safety, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, regional connectivity, and emerging transport technologies.

In addition, we recognize the continued importance not just of climate issues but, as part of climate issues, environmental protection.  And so, as a result, the Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service, will collaborate with their counterparts in Southeast Asia to expand conservation and reverse deforestation.  

And U.S. conversation personnel, including from U.S. — from the National Park Service will travel to Southeast Asia to share best practices and improve protected area management across the region, emphasizing nature-based climate solutions, as well as sustainable tourism and visitor management, traditional knowledge and access to resources, and transboundary habitat connectivity.

And then, something that we are particularly pleased to be able to announce is that — recognizing the tremendous importance of the strong people-to-people connections between the United States and countries in Southeast Asia — the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — i.e. SAIS — will launch the U.S.-ASEAN Institute for Rising Leaders, an innovative program to bring exceptional public servants from ASEAN governments to the United States for professional and leadership training.  

Through private funding, including from Boeing and UPS, the program will sponsor up to 30 mid-career public-service professionals each year — up to 3 from each of the 10 ASEAN countries — to attend a tailored, intensive multi-week leadership development program. 

So as you can see, we have a range of new initiatives across key priority areas that we believe reflect both the traditional partnership between the United States and countries in Southeast Asia and ASEAN itself, as well as new areas that we see as really critical for building out the partnership between the United States and ASEAN, as well as, obviously, strengthening our continued engagements with individual countries in Southeast Asia.  

We’re excited to put this into action.  Very excited about the summit, which we do believe marks a major milestone in the development and the strengthening of the U.S.-ASEAN partnership.

And, with that, I’ll talk a few questions.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you.  Could we please give out the directions to ask a question?

Q    Thank you.  Morning, [senior administration official].  You said that the U.S. needs to step up its game.  Can you expand a little bit on why that’s the case and, you know, how what China has been doing in the region plays into this new push from the Biden administration?

And separately, many ASEAN countries are nervous about being caught between the U.S. and China, particularly publicly. 

So how did you convince them to agree to some of this new increased security cooperation that you mentioned?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, first, let me start off saying it’s a very good question.  I think that I would challenge slightly the premise.  We have long been engaged in Southeast Asia.  I mean, very clearly, we’ve been an important player in the region going back to the period immediately after the end of the Second World War.  We have longstanding alliances with the Philippines and Thailand.  We have strong partnerships with a number of other key countries in the region.  

So this is — you know, Southeast Asia has been important to the United States for a long time.  But there is no question that Southeast Asia’s importance is growing as Southeast Asia itself grows and becomes increasingly more prosperous and more important on the global stage.  We have long sought strong relations with the region. 

I think that what has changed and where we need to step up our game is both working with countries bilaterally, but also working with ASEAN as an institution.  As I’m sure you know, and I’m sure many others on the call, the — we’ve had a (inaudible) partnership with ASEAN for 45 years, the truth is it’s really been in the past, you know, 12, 13 years that we’ve really stepped up the engagement. 

And I think it’s a recognition on our part that in order to be effective in Southeast Asia, we need to have a strong partnership and a strong relationship with ASEAN as an institution, as well as with countries bilaterally.  

So I think that, you know, in terms of China, obviously China is an important player in the region.  We recognize and we’ve made very clear in our Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as things that we’ve said bilaterally and in our engagements, that we are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. 

We want to make clear, though, that the United States seeks stronger relationships, that we want to expand the areas of cooperation, and that we recognize that in order to do that, we need to be responsive to desires of countries in the region to work in areas that are important to them.  So we are working to do that.  I think that you’ve seen in the past year that — a real effort on the part of the administration to engage Southeast Asia. 

And, you know, this really started at the beginning of the administration, but COVID restrictions made travel difficult at the beginning.  But we’ve had a steady cadence of senior-level visits — and going in both directions, in fact — now culminating with this.  

And I think that we, more importantly, want to continue building on the very close partnerships that we have with many countries in the region.  We want to strengthen where we can.  And we see that as part — we see this as part of that effort. 

Q    Hi.  Thank you for taking the question.  A number of the investments you’re announcing today seem to be on topics that are also included in the President’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.  And I wondered if you might elaborate on the connection between the investments today in that framework, and whether these are sort of a precursor to some of the initiatives that the administration is looking to undertake as part of those negotiations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  That’s a great question.  And I think that the — I think it’s important to cite this in part of the broader context, which is that we recognize there is a tremendous desire in the region for affirmative U.S. economic engagement.  We are very proud of the very strong economic links between the United States and Southeast Asian countries. 

We are either the leading or one of the most significant investors in many of these countries.  There’s a great deal of trade that goes back and forth.  And I think trade with the United States is particularly important in terms of higher value-added products for many of these countries.  

At the same time, we recognize that we cannot just rest on our laurels.  We need to address concerns of — that matter to countries today and, obviously, advance our own economic interests in the process. 

So, you know, you’re absolutely right there is some overlap with elements that will be addressed in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.  But I think that the key is that the — these are things which reflect the strong shared interests between the United States and countries in the region.  And the elements of these areas that will be in the economic framework, when it is formalized, I think reflect our recognition of the fact that to be effective, we need to address things that are of common concern.

In terms of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework itself — and I know that, you know, someone is going to ask, and I’ll just say: You know, we’re working with partners in the region on moving forward with the framework.  I would stress it is an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, not an “ASEAN economic framework,” and I think that’s a significant distinction. 

We are — at the same time, we’re working very closely with partners, including a number of countries in ASEAN, to move forward with this and to help get this off the ground.  I think we will have more for you in the not-too-distant future.  

At the same time, I think that what we’re looking for in this summit is to really strengthen the areas of collaboration between the United States and ASEAN as an organization.  And so, for us, these elements are a critical piece of that, but they are not the only piece of that.  And there are many other issues that matter between the United States and ASEAN.

Q    Thanks so much for this.  Two quick ones.  The first would just be if you have a headline figure for all of the investments that you’re making here. 

But also, just more substantively, I wanted to see if you had a status update on Build Back Better World and if that initiative is going to play into either these announcements or the discussions that you’re having at ASEAN.  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you very much.  Both are very good questions.  On the headline figure — and you — you know, it is rare that we make this kind of a mistake to overlook it — it is approximately $150 million.  And so, we’re — you know, we’re very proud of that.  We think it reflects the — you know, the strengthening of the relationship. 

And I think we want to be very clear we have quite a few bilateral programs — that are bilateral in nature — with countries in the region.  So, you know, this is not the totality of our assistance to Southeast Asia, but this is what we’re looking to do with ASEAN as a result of this summit.

In terms of Build Back Better World — totally understand the question.  You know, my sense is that, you know, there — that is operating on a different track.  And there — you know, there’s continued efforts on that front.  

I think that for — where we stand, we see infrastructure as a very important element of what we’re doing with ASEAN.  You’ve seen we’re looking for things that don’t just — that, you know, that are not just about providing assistance on specific projects or engagement on specific projects, but that are really seeking to catalyze greater private sector investment, because we believe that to really be effective, we need to harness some of the pools of private capital that are interested but are still sitting on the sidelines.  And we’re looking for ways in which we can prime the pump to do that.

I think that there’s also a broader recognition of the importance of addressing infrastructure challenges and that this is something that matters to the region and where the United States can bring expertise.  And we’re looking for the best way to harness that. 

Q    Thanks very much for doing this.  Two questions.  One specifically on announcements today.  Can you expand on the infrastructure piece?  I’m not sure I fully got — is there investment in infrastructure projects attached to that, or is it, you know, a sort of an advisory thing? 

And, secondarily, just a big-picture question: Obviously, the gap between China and the U.S., in terms of overall trade with ASEAN, has gotten relatively wide over the last decade, and there’s not anything here about expanding market access, trade deals, et cetera.  I know that’s not exactly on the table from the U.S.; it is from China.  I guess, how would you respond to the idea that China has more to offer ASEAN economically at the moment than the U.S. does?  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I totally understand the question.  In term — let me just go to the first part, which is about the infrastructure. 

So, as you may have heard at the top, I said we’re going to invest $40 million that will go into a blended financing program that we believe could mobilize up to $2 billion that will address clean energy infrastructure in the region.  So, you know, that — so we’re doing that.

In addition, we have — we announced that the Department of Transportation will be launching some new programs that will promote safety as well as sustainable and resilient infrastructure and regional connectivity and emerging transport technologies.  

And also, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency will announce some initiatives that will — that we believe could potentially catalyze over $13 billion in financing for clean-energy projects that advance net-zero goals.  So, that’s the reference specifically to the infrastructure. 

In terms of the broader economic relationship, I think it’s very important to look at a number of things.  One is, obviously, the bilateral — the trade data on goods trade — very clearly, the relationships with China have grown.  I think that it needs to put in the context of, one, geographic proximity and also China’s growing economy.  I mean, naturally, you know, the countries that are closest to China have a significant interest in expanding their trade ties.

I think that in terms of the quality, I would probably take a little bit of exception.  I think that the U.S. plays an extremely important role in virtually all of the economies of the countries that will be here.  And that role isn’t just measured in bilateral trade and goods; it’s measured in services; it’s also measured in investment.  And I think that you can see that in virtually all of these countries, the U.S. remains the largest source of foreign direct investment.  And the U.S. foreign direct investment has produced — it has produced high-quality areas where they’re able — the countries in the region are able to participate in much higher value chains.

I think that one of the things that was really driven home by the pandemic and the disruptions on supply chains is that we are extremely — we’re extremely closely linked with economies in Southeast Asia.  I would just highlight the fact that when chip factories in Malaysia closed, that caused ripple effects that had a real impact on the U.S. auto industry.  And I think what that does is it highlights the fact that a lot of the trade between Southeast Asian countries and the United States has a much higher value add for the countries involved. 

So we believe that the economic partnership with the United States is still very important.  And I think if you look at the relative openness of the markets, the U.S. still does extremely well in comparison to other major trading partners, in terms of the overall openness of our market. 

At the same time, we recognize that we can’t simply rest on our laurels.  We need to come up with an affirmative economic agenda that makes clear our understanding and our desire to work with countries to address today’s challenges — some of them, as you know, which are not necessarily covered by traditional trade agreements.  And, in that, I would particularly highlight the fact that we’ve all become far more aware of the importance of supply chains and, in particular, redundancy and resiliency in supply chains. 

So, I think that there are significant areas where we have the potential to work closely and strengthen the partnerships with Southeast Asian countries.  I think Southeast Asian countries are very aware of the economic benefits of closer ties to the United States.  And we believe that there is also significant benefits to Americans as well.

One thing that we plan on doing — and I’m sure you’ve seen — there will be a CEO event that will be hosted by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that the ASEAN leaders will participate in.  And I think that that is an indication of the importance that they place on their economic ties with the United States, as well as the fact that we recognize their tremendous benefits to Americans and American firms through stronger connections to an area that is growing significantly and will be increasingly important in global terms in the coming two decades.

Q    Thank you so much.  I just want to pick up a couple of questions from my colleagues.  And I apologize if this has been discussed earlier; I had some audio problems in the beginning. 

Just more on the Indones- — Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.  On the logistics of it, is it something that’s going to be formally announced later on during the President’s trip to Asia, or is it going to be formally announced during the summit?  And can you explain whether some ASEAN countries are interested to sign on; which particular modules are they most interested in?

And just also a follow-up on Build Back Better World.  I understand the Daleep Singh has made these listening tours to Africa and the Middle East and Latin America, but I don’t believe that he’s been to Southeast Asia on these tours.  So, can you explain why and whether there are any plans to do that, and whether there are actually any interest from ASEAN countries for the BW3 program?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, you’ve asked a bunch of questions, so let me just try and go through those.

I think that in terms of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, again, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.  We are working to be able to roll this out at an appropriate time and I don’t want to point to when that will be.  We’re still working on that. 

However, I think that in terms of the interest, we are — we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest from countries in Southeast Asia as well as from other parts of the Indo-Pacific.  We believe that this bodes well.  At the same time, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and we still have some work to do as we move forward.

I think that we recognize, though, as I said before, the tremendous importance of an affirmative U.S. economic engagement with the region and that this is something that very much reflects what the region wants.

I think in terms of specific modules — again, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves on that — I think that we — as I said, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest from across the region, including from countries in Southeast Asia.  And, you know, we’re looking forward to continuing to work closely with them as we move forward.

In terms of Daleep — Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh’s travel, I think that you raise a good point.  I would just stress that we have had extensive senior-level engagement with Southeast Asian countries.  We have heard very clearly a very strong desire for the U.S. to be more economically engaged.  And that’s obviously part of what’s gone into the desire to move forward with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

We’ve also heard a great deal of interest in greater U.S. participation in infrastructure efforts.  So, you know, while Daleep hasn’t gone into the region specifically for the purpose of a listening tour, I would note that the Vice President was in the region, the Secretary of Defense has gone to the region, the Secretary of Commerce has gone to the region, the Secretary of State has gone to the region.  We’ve had visitors here, including the Prime Minister of Singapore, who I’m sure you saw was here at the end of March.  The President has engaged with — virtually with the ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN Summit in October.  So we have heard very loudly and clearly the interests from the countries involved.

So, I think that, you know, from our standpoint, we’re moving forward with this.  This is obviously not an easy thing to do, and it’s very important to coordinate effectively.  We want to make sure that we’re working as partners rather than, you know, dictating sort of a U.S.-only vision for how things should be. 

We also are very, very focused on the need to address today’s challenges and tomorrow’s, and to look for things — and look for ways in which we can address the kinds of things that haven’t always been addressed in traditional trade agreements. 

We remain very, very committed to strengthening the U.S. partnership economically, as well as politically and in security terms with the region.  We believe that, you know, this is a big part of doing that and there is nothing that substitutes for direct engagement at the leader level.  

So, we’re very proud that we’re able to do this and look forward to a successful summit.  And we’re deeply grateful to our ASEAN partners for the spirit of cooperation that they approach — they’ve approached this with.  And they’re — you know, what we see is their very, very sincere desire for stronger ties with the United States, both with ASEAN as an institution, as well as bilaterally.

So, with that, let me thank you all for joining, and we hope that — we hope that, you know, we’ll stand ready to answer more questions at some point down the road.  You can contact [moderator].  But I think we’re looking forward to a very successful summit.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  Thanks, [senior administration official].

And as a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a “senior administration official,” and the contents are embargoed until 5:30 p.m. Eastern today.

I know some of you asked for the factsheet; that’s going to be in your inbox shortly.  So thanks, everyone, for joining and talk to you later.

10:09 A.M. EDT

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/05/12/background-press-call-by-a-senior-administration-official-previewing-new-initiatives-from-the-u-s-asean-special-summit/

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