Bangkok—US Vice President Kamala Harris told Asian leaders on Friday that the United States is committed to the region for the long haul, rejecting doubts about its engagement as China expands its clout.
Addressing a summit in Bangkok, Harris called the United States a “proud Pacific power” and said that the longstanding US network of security alliances has allowed Asia to prosper.
“The United States is here to stay,” Harris told business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, also attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Our message is clear: The United States has an enduring economic commitment to the Indo-Pacific, one that is measured not in years, but in decades and generations,” she said, using the preferred US term for the Asia-Pacific region.
President Joe Biden’s administration has focused on rallying behind allies and Harris will head from Thailand to the Philippines, where she will visit an island near waters increasingly contested by Beijing.
While the United States has taken a firm tone on China, some Asian officials have questioned the level of US economic engagement.
Biden has largely followed his predecessor Donald Trump in turning thepage on the era of free-trade agreements, seeing them as unpopular among working-class US voters.
Harris insisted that economic partnerships in Asia were “a top priority” for the Biden administration and pointed out that the US private sector invests around $1 trillion a year in the region.
“America is a strong partner to the economies and companies of this region because America is and will remain a major engine of global growth, reinforced by our administration’s approach,” she said.
Harris said that goal had bipartisan support, with Washington set for greater gridlock after the rival Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives in elections last week.
Biden on a trip to Tokyo earlier this year launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which brings together countries to set common standards on technology and trade in the face of China’s rapid advances but stops short of lifting tariffs like a traditional free-trade deal.
“We are all feeling the discomfort and the anxiety of the global economy today,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai told reporters Thursday.
“We need different outcomes, and that means that we also need to be innovating in how we engage each other in trade and economics and across the board,” she said.
Despite US vows of engagement, Biden skipped the APEC summit to attend his granddaughter’s wedding at the White House on Saturday.
He attended two other summits in Asia over the past week, however, in Cambodia and Indonesia.
The annual meeting of Pacific Rim leaders started Friday in Bangkok with the focus on taming surging food and energy prices driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as realizing inclusive and sustainable growth of the region.
The launch by North Korea of an intercontinental ballistic missile-class projectile, which likely fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone earlier Friday, is expected to draw attention at the two-day summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The APEC leaders are expected to address issues of climate change, as well as facilitate free, fair and sustainable trade and investment.
“APEC must look beyond recovery from the pandemic and toward rejuvenating and revitalizing the environment to boost resilience and ensure a more inclusive and sustainable growth,” Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said in his opening remarks.
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether they are able to issue a post-summit leaders’ declaration, given a rift over Russia’s aggression.
Western countries condemn Russia, but some member economies, such as China, have opted not to sanction Moscow.
However, other than that part, the APEC leaders are expected to agree on issues such as promoting free and fair trade and investment.
They are also expected to find common ground on the importance of transitioning to clean energy while ensuring energy security at the same time.
A day before the opening of the summit talks, ministers from the 21 economies welcomed the Bangkok Goals, a post-COVID-19 pandemic growth strategy initiated by the Thai government addressing environmental and climate issues, pledging to urge the APEC leaders to endorse the goals at their gathering.
Despite differences over the Ukraine crisis among the member economies, including Japan, the United States and Russia, the leaders plan to adopt “Bangkok Goals” for the Bio-Circular-Green Economy concept.
Prayut said he looks forward to winning the leaders’ endorsement of the Bangkok Goals on Saturday, calling them a legacy of APEC 2022.
The APEC leaders are also slated for talks with the APEC Business Advisory Council on Friday, the sole official private-sector advisory entity for the APEC leaders’ consultation comprising members from the 21 economies participating in APEC.
The Japanese members of the ABAC have handed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida their proposal to Asia-Pacific leaders before his departure for Southeast Asia, urging them to formulate ambitious and practical energy transition plans toward a low-carbon economy based on needs of economic growth, energy resilience and decarbonization among the forum members.
The APEC gathering will be the last of a series of summit meetings in Southeast Asia—lateral talks on the sidelines.
Harris is attending the Bangkok summit in place of Biden. Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped it, as he did in the G-20 summit that ended Wednesday in Bali, Indonesia.
Representing about half of global trade and 60 percent of the world economy, APEC groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.