Asian economic chief says region needs 'investment,' not 'tensions' from US, China ahead of Biden visit

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EXCLUSIVE – The secretary-general of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged the U.S. to invest more in South East Asia and to put aside tensions with China ahead of his meeting with President Biden over the weekend. 

"Of course, U.S. investment is one of the biggest now in the region already, but perhaps more investment" would help the region, ASEAN Secretary-General Dr. Kao Kim Hourn told Fox News Digital in an exclusive interview. 

"For example, we have U.S. Peace Corps volunteers working closely in Cambodia. We have projects in the health sector, in the environment sector, across sectors that we’ve been working on together in counterterrorism," Kao explained. "So I think it is good to continue to expand and strengthen all the areas of cooperation at all levels." 

Biden will visit Cambodia as part of his global tour that will include Egypt and Indonesia, as well as a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kao spoke excitedly about the upcoming, historic meeting with Biden, but insisted Southeast Asia needs the U.S. to play a "benign" role and not bring "geopolitical rivalry and tension" to the region.  

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"I believe we want to see strategic trust being increased and [everyone] working together," Kao said. "Of course, where there is, what we call, a trust deficit, that’s where we should look on and try to … increase the level of cooperation across sectors." 

"The similarity between us and [China] is deep, but also between us and the U.S.," he added, urging the U.S. to make such relationships "sustainable and close in the long-term." 

Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asia spoke with Fox News Digital in the rose garden of the United Nations headquarters just prior to taking his new post. (Fox News Digital / Fox News)

"That’s where [you will see] the influence and impact in the long-term." 

Kao assumed his role as secretary-general in August following his role as Cambodia’s representative to the economic body ASEAN. 

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He has leaned into trying to maintain a peaceful balance between American and Chinese interests. China currently invests heavily in South East Asia, while the U.S. has only in recent years started to increase investment in the region. 

Ashok Mipuri, ambassador of Singapore to the U.S., said during July’s Aspen Security Forum that Southeast Asia serves as the "heart" of the "competitive dynamic between China and the United States," which has turned the region into a budding economic battleground between the two world powers. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh, right, attend the signing ceremony for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact at the ASEAN summit held online in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Nov. 1 (Photo by Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Ford opened a factory in Cambodia in April after investing $21 million to build facilities in the Pursat Province, which Minister Delegate to the Prime Minister Keo Rattanak said was part of trying to attract new business and partners to the region. 

Apple, meanwhile, opened a new iPad factory in Vietnam in 2021 – a process started in 2019 as part of avoiding U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, the New York Times reported.  

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Kao stressed that the U.S. is just one of several important partners for the region, along with China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. 

"Our role is to work with our dialogue partners in a transparent, open, inclusive manner, and that is, I think, a strategic trust that we have built," Kao said. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right and President Biden appear on a screen as they hold a meeting via video link in Beijing Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.  (Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via AP / AP Newsroom)

"If U.S. companies are interested, they can talk to the government, and we will go from there," he added. "Not just in this sector, but also in energy … across the board. We are very, very open." 

"We have now a very good level of cooperation," Kao insisted. "We should expand that cooperation, and, of course, in a strengthened interest."

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Kao, therefore, underscored the value that U.S. investment could not only bring to the region, but could help limit China’s impact. He pointed to a strong relationship rooted in the value of education, with the United States taking Cambodian students who end up returning and working in the country’s civil services. 

The Fulbright scholarship also runs a number of programs in Cambodia to help elevate the country’s educational infrastructure. 

"Education is very important because we have, you know, Cambodia by demography is a young society," Kao said. "That's why the government has been investing in education and health and social sector."

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"So that's why I think it is all about the future: If the younger people are better trained and they have better skills, I think I'm sure [that] would be the direction. So the U.S. has been quite active on many fronts." 

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