President Joe Biden said on Tuesday the United States was moving “strongly” on its growing Asia-Pacific priorities, despite the crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Welcoming Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Oval Office, Biden said the “rules-based global order” faces “unprecedented challenges” but Washington has not been distracted by the war in Ukraine.
“Even as we address the crisis in Europe, my administration strongly supports the rapid implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy,” Biden said.
Read more: Biden says his ‘moral outrage’ against Putin doesn’t signal a change in US policy
Describing the United States as “a proud Indo-Pacific nation”, Biden said he wanted to ensure the region remained “free and open” – a reference to what the White House sees as attempts at power rising Chinese to dominate international trade routes.
Lee called for closer U.S.-ASEAN ties, saying “it helps the U.S. have a presence in the Asia-Pacific, deepen our relationship with many friends, and strengthen our strategic interests in the region”.
Reflecting Singapore’s position as a trade hub keen to maintain good relations with Beijing and Washington, Lee said he hoped Biden would “deepen” relations with “China certainly, but also other countries that the China”.
In a joint media appearance, the two leaders underscored the message, with Biden saying they “jointly pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific, a connected, prosperous and more secure Indo-Pacific.”
Lee said “Singapore deeply appreciates America’s engagement in Southeast Asia” and has “constantly supported a strong American presence in the region.”
Read more: Biden warns Putin against using chemical weapons in Ukraine
– Invasion of Ukraine looms –
The Biden administration has repeatedly called the Asia-Pacific region, and in particular the rise of communist China, the number one strategic issue for the United States.
The world’s two largest economies are at odds over trade, human rights and, more broadly, what Biden often describes as a defining 21st century struggle between the world’s autocracies and democracies.
But worries about China have been pushed into the background by the emergency in Europe, where the Russian military is in its second month of attacking neighboring, pro-Western Ukraine in a crisis more reminiscent of the cold War.
Even the alarming acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear program – including the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week – has been overshadowed by the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Bloody Campaign.
Inevitably, the Russian war against Ukraine weighed heavily on Lee’s visit.
Singapore announced in February that 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 support, but Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan cited the “unprecedented severity” of the crisis.
And Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which Putin says he wants to “demilitarize”, has deeply shocked US allies beyond Europe, including Australia and Japan.
Read more: Biden to call on Chinese Xi for war on Ukraine
“The war in Ukraine has implications for Asia-Pacific. There are also potential hot spots and contentious issues in our region, which if not handled well could escalate into open conflict,” Lee said.
This echoes the assessment of a US official, who told reporters that Putin’s shredding of international borders “poses a threat not only to Europe but also to 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 may actively help the Russians.
AFP with additional contribution from GVS