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Obama announces measures to deepen economic ties with Southeast Asia

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CALIFORNIA] US President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a package of measures designed to boost Southeast Asian economies, betting that the fast-growing region can be an ever more important trade partner.

[Rancho Mirage, CALIFORNIA] US President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a package of measures designed to boost Southeast Asian economies, betting that the fast-growing region can be an ever more important trade partner.

The plan will establish three economic offices - in Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore - "to better coordinate our economic engagement and connect more of our entrepreneurs, investors and businesses with each other."

The White House sees the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) - representatives of which have been meeting with Obama since Monday in California - as an emerging regional counterweight to China's regional dominance.

Collectively, the countries are the fourth-largest trading partner for the United States.

According to White House figures, "two-way trade in goods and services has tripled since the 1990s, topping US$254 billion in 2014," supporting around half a million US jobs.

"We have an increasingly deep and broad economic relationship with Asean," said US ambassador to Asean Nina Hachigian.

Asean includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

While Southeast Asian economies are youthful and fast-growing, many sectors remain the under the control of government or special interests.

But countries like Indonesia are beginning to open up. Its president Joko Widodo recently announced steps to open the economy to foreign investment that were welcomed in Washington.

The new "US-Asean Connect" package will include technical advice on how countries like Indonesia and the Philippines can prepare to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast Pacific-wide trade deal that is in the process of being ratified.

"We've launched a new effort to help all Asean countries understand the key elements of TPP as well as the reforms that could eventually lead to them joining," Mr Obama said.

Other measures will focus on improving trade ties in the communications and infrastructure sectors among others, streamlining current government programmes.

It will also address the power sector, an area where China has been especially active, building dams along the upper Mekong.

AFP