Monday, May 23, 2022

Biden eyes Asia challenges in Singapore PM’s visit

The Biden administration has repeatedly characterised the Asia-Pacific region, and particularly the rise of communist China, as the number one strategic issue for the US.

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US President Joe Biden, back from a high-stakes trip to Europe focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine, hosts the prime minister of Singapore Tuesday in a chance to address crucial US challenges across Asia.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will meet Biden in the Oval Office at 10.35am (1435 GMT), and the two leaders will later make a joint media appearance.

The get-together will hand Biden a welcome opportunity to delve into Washington’s long-touted “pivot to Asia.”

“We are very happy” to host Lee, a senior US official said, “because we believe that the US-Singapore strategic partnership is extremely strong and valuable to both countries, and it has supported peace and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific.”

The Biden administration has repeatedly characterised the Asia-Pacific region, and particularly the rise of communist China, as the number one strategic issue for the US.

The world’s two biggest economies are at loggerheads over trade, human rights and, more broadly, what Biden often portrays as a defining struggle in the 21st century between the globe’s autocracies and democracies.

But concerns about China have been pushed to the back burner by the emergency in Europe, where Russia’s military is in its second month of attacking neighbouring, pro-Western Ukraine in a crisis more reminiscent of the Cold War.

Even the alarming acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear programme – including testing an intercontinental ballistic missile last week – has been overshadowed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloody campaign.

Ukraine invasion looms

Inevitably, when Lee meets Biden, Ukraine will loom large.

Singapore announced in February it was joining other pro-Western powers in imposing sanctions on Russia, including blocking financial transactions.

The wealthy city-state rarely sanctions other countries without UN backing, but Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan cited the “unprecedented gravity” of the crisis.

“The president and prime minister will be meeting at a very critical time, one in which the rules-based international order faces (an) unprecedented challenge,” the US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which Putin says he wants to “demilitarise,” has deeply shocked US allies beyond Europe, including Australia and Japan.

The US official said Putin’s shredding of international borders “poses a threat not only for Europe, but also for the Indo-Pacific.”

But while the official described Singapore and other regional powers as “stepping up,” India has pointedly refused to condemn Russia’s war, while Western officials fear China could actively help the Russians.

The White House says that when discussion turns to China, Biden will raise “efforts to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific” – shorthand for the US-led campaign to push back against Chinese expansion into disputed waters and international sea lanes.

“The US-Singapore security partnership is very, very important to the US,” the US official said.

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