US keen to help boost India-Asean ties: Biden

SINGAPORE - The United States wants to help strengthen the links between India and South-east Asia as a way to boost regional security and prosperity, visiting US Vice-President Joe Biden said as he began a two-day visit to Singapore.

Mr Biden, who was in New Delhi and Mumbai earlier this week, noted that both India and Singapore have central roles to play in helping to address tension in the Asia-Pacific.

"There's an important reason why I've chosen to travel from India to Singapore," Mr Biden said in a written interview with The Straits Times.

"We want to highlight and reinforce the growing links between India and South-east Asia, and the growing importance of both to regional prosperity and security. We see some of the same opportunities in South-east Asia that we see in India."

The Vice-President is not expected to announce major new initiatives during his visit.

White House officials have instead characterised the trip as part of ongoing US efforts to strengthen engagement with the Asia-Pacific, a hallmark of US foreign policy under the Obama administration.

By sending Mr Biden, a key player in the administration who has decades of experience in foreign policy, the White House is also hoping to send a strong signal to Asian countries that it is "all in" with regard to the strategy to "rebalance" towards the Asia-Pacific, officials added.

The strategy, announced in late 2011, involves shifting more US military and diplomatic resources to the region after two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some Asian countries, however, are concerned that Washington would not be able to sustain this effort. Others are worried that the US strategy is too focused on security matters, and ignores trade and economic ties, which are paramount to the region.

In his written reply, Mr Biden sidestepped a question on whether a US-Asean free trade agreement was possible in the next three years. But he stressed that a key aspect of his visit was to highlight the importance of the economic relationship between the US, India and Asean.

He added: "There's a reason why 1,500 US companies make their home away from home in Singapore, and there's a reason why the US invests more in South-east Asia than in China.

"We see the mutual opportunity here and we greatly value it. And part of our rebalancing strategy is to strengthen those bonds, to work together towards greater integration, and towards reducing barriers to trade and investment."

Addressing business leaders at the Mumbai stock exchange on Wednesday, Mr Biden also urged India to further open its economy to foreign investments, a move which could improve US-India trade fivefold.

Turning to prickly US-China ties, he said the relationship was not as bad as widely assumed.

"When a lot of people think about this relationship, they think only in terms of suspicion. But I don't think that's the right way of looking at it," he said.

"The truth is more hopeful, and probably more complicated."

chinhon@sph.com.sg

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