Biden arrives in Cambodia looking to counter China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

President Joe Biden highlighted the US partnership with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations on Saturday as “the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” as he seeks to counter China’s growing influence ahead of a high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping set for Monday.

The weekend of meetings in Cambodia comes ahead of next week’s highly anticipated G20 summit in Indonesia, where Biden will meet Xi in person for the first time since taking office. The ASEAN meetings – along with Sunday’s East Asia summit, also being held in Phnom Penh – will be a chance for the president to speak to US allies before sitting down with Xi.

In remarks at the summit, Biden announced “another critical step” toward building on the group’s progress, detailing the launch of the US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which he said “will address the biggest issues of our time , from the climate to health security, to protecting against significant threats to the rules-based order and to threats to the rule of law, and to building an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.” He pointed out existing US financial commitments to ASEAN, noting a budget request for $850 million in aid to Southeast Asia.

“This is my third trip, my third summit — my second in person — and it’s a testament to the importance the United States places on our relationship with ASEAN and our commitment to ASEAN’s central role. ASEAN is the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. And we continue to strengthen our commitment to work in step with an empowered, united ASEAN,” Biden said in brief opening remarks at the start of the summit.

The president’s first order of business in Cambodia was a bilateral meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as he looks to build on the summit between Biden and ASEAN leaders in Washington earlier this year.

Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One, “has been intent on increasing our engagement in the Indo-Pacific region” since the start of his presidency and his presence at the ASEAN and East Asia summits this weekend will highlight its work to date, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework announced earlier this year and security partnership efforts.

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“He comes to this set of summits with this record of accomplishments and goals behind him, and he wants to be able to use the next 36 hours to build on that foundation to continue the American commitment and also deliver a series of concrete, practical initiatives,” Sullivan said.

Among those practical initiatives, Sullivan noted, are new maritime cooperation, digital connectivity and economic investment. Biden is set to launch a new maritime domain effort “that focuses on the use of radio frequencies from commercial satellites to be able to track shipping in the dark, illegal and unregulated fishing, and to improve the capacity of countries in the region to respond to disasters and humanitarian crises,” Sullivan said.

Biden will also emphasize a “forward deployment posture” toward regional defense, Sullivan added, to show that the U.S. is on the front foot in terms of security cooperation.

During his remarks, Biden also pointed to a new US-ASEAN electric vehicle infrastructure initiative.

“We will work together to develop an integrated ecosystem for electric vehicles in Southeast Asia, enabling the region to pursue clean energy, economic development and ambitious emission reduction goals,” he said of the initiative.

There will also be a focus on Myanmar and discussions on coordination “to continue to impose spending and increase pressure on the junta”, which seized power from the country’s democratically elected government in a coup in February 2021.

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh on November 12, 2022. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP ) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/ AFP via Getty Images)

While in Phnom Penh, Biden will meet with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on Sunday after a series of weapons tests by North Korea, Sullivan said. The meeting is notable given the historic tensions between Japan and South Korea, and the relationship between the two staunch US allies is one that Biden has sought to overcome.

The Japanese and South Koreans are united in their concern over Kim Jong Un’s missile tests, as well as the prospect of a seventh nuclear weapon test. North Korea has increased its testing this year, conducting missile tests for 32 days in 2022, according to CNN. That’s compared to just eight in 2021 and four in 2020, with the latest launch coming on Wednesday.

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Sullivan suggested that the trilateral meeting would not lead to concrete results, but rather to increased security cooperation amid a range of threats.

The trio of world leaders, Sullivan told reporters, “will be able to discuss broader security issues in the Indo-Pacific and also specifically the threats posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.”

Sullivan said Thursday that the administration was concerned about North Korea conducting a seventh nuclear test, but could not say whether that would happen during the weekend of meetings.

“Our concern still remains real. Whether that happens in the next week or not, I can’t say,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “We are also concerned about further potential tests of long-range missiles in addition to the possibility of a nuclear test. So we’ll be watching both closely.”

But Monday’s meeting with Xi in Bali, Indonesia, will undoubtedly loom over the Cambodia summits and be part of those trilateral talks.

“One thing that President Biden certainly wants to do with our closest allies is review what he intends to do and also ask the leaders of (South Korea) and Japan, ‘what would you like me to raise?’ What do you want me to come in with?'” Sullivan said, adding that it “will be a theme, but it won’t be the main event of the trilateral.”

Biden and Xi have spoken by phone five times since the president entered the White House. They traveled a lot together, both in China and in the United States when they were both vice presidents of their respective countries.

Both enter Monday’s meeting amid significant political events. Biden performed better than expected in the US midterm elections and Xi was elevated to an unprecedented third term by the Chinese Communist Party.

US officials declined to speculate on how the two leaders’ political situations might affect the dynamics of their meeting.

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The high-stakes bilateral meeting between Biden and Xi will focus on “sharpening” each leader’s understanding of the other’s priorities, Sullivan told reporters.

This includes the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing claims. In the past, Biden has vowed to use US military force to defend the island from invasion. The issue is among the most contentious between Biden and Xi.

Biden will also raise the issue of North Korea, emphasizing the critical role China can play in managing what is an acute threat to the region, Sullivan said.

Biden has repeatedly raised the issue in his talks with Xi so far, but Sullivan emphasized the US view that China plays a critical role – and one that should be viewed within its own self-interest.

“If North Korea continues down this path, it’s just going to mean further increased American military and security presence in the region,” Sullivan said. “And so (China) has an interest in playing a constructive role in containing North Korea’s worst tendencies.” Of course, it is up to them whether they choose to do so or not.

Sullivan said Biden would detail his position on the issue, “which is that North Korea poses a threat not just to the United States, not just to (South Korea) and Japan, but to the peace and stability of the entire region.”

Sullivan suggested the meeting would focus on better understanding positions on a number of critical issues, but was unlikely to produce major breakthroughs or dramatic changes in relations.

Instead, “it’s about leaders coming to a better understanding and then delegating to their teams” to continue working on those issues, Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden traveled to Cambodia.

The meeting, to be held on the sidelines of the G20 summit, was the result of “several weeks of intense” discussions between the two countries, Sullivan said, and is seen by Biden as the start of a series of engagements between the leaders and their teams .


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