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

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

President Joe Biden on Saturday emphasized US partnerships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as “the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” as he sought to counter China’s growing influence ahead of a summit with Chinese President Xi. Jinping is set on Monday.

The weekend meetings in Cambodia will be the first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office in Indonesia ahead of the much-anticipated Group of 20 summit. Sunday’s East Asia summit in Phnom Penh will be an opportunity for the president to talk to US allies before he sits down with Xi.

In his speech at the summit, he announced the launch of the United States-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as “another important step” in advancing the group’s development. To protect health, prevent threats to governance and the rule of law, and build a free and open, stable and prosperous, strong and secure Indo-Pacific. He cited America’s financial commitment to ASEAN in his 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 of the United States in our relationship with ASEAN and our commitment to the centrality of ASEAN. ASEAN is the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. And we will continue to strengthen our commitment to work closely with an empowered and integrated ASEAN,” Biden said in a brief opening speech as the summit began.

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

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One that from the start of the presidency, “it was about increasing our engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” and his attendance at ASEAN and East Asia summits this weekend will highlight that work. So far, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and Security Partnership efforts announced earlier this year.

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“He’s coming into this meeting with a sense of accomplishment and purpose behind him, and he wants to use the next 36 hours to build on that foundation to advance America’s engagement as well as deliver a series of concrete, actionable initiatives,” Sullivan said.

Among these practical initiatives, Sullivan pointed out, are new ones on maritime cooperation, digital connectivity and economic investment. Biden is set to launch a new maritime domain effort focused on using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to monitor dark shipping, illegal and unregulated fishing, and improve the region’s countries’ ability to respond to disasters. Humanitarian crises,” Sullivan said.

To demonstrate that the United States is at the forefront of security cooperation, Biden will emphasize a “forward-looking stance” on regional defense, Sullivan added.

During his speech, Biden also mentioned a new US-SAN electric vehicle infrastructure initiative.

We will work together to develop an integrated electric vehicle ecosystem in Southeast Asia, enabling the region to pursue clean energy, economic development and ambitious emission reduction goals.

There will be a focus on Myanmar and a focus on coordination to “sustain spending and put pressure on the junta” that took power from the country’s democratically elected government in a February 2021 coup.

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, November 12, 2022.  (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/AFP via Getty Images)

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

The Japanese and South Koreans are concerned about Kim Jong Un’s missile test and seventh nuclear weapon test. North Korea will conduct a 32-day missile test in 2022 and ramp up its tests this year, according to a CNN count. That’s compared to eight in 2021 and four in 2020, with the new start coming on Wednesday.

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Sullivan pointed out that the tripartite meeting will not lead to specific results, but rather to improved security cooperation between various threats.

The three world leaders, Sullivan told reporters, “could discuss broader security issues in the Indo-Pacific and, in particular, the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.”

Sullivan said Thursday that the administration is concerned about North Korea’s seventh nuclear test, but could not say whether it would come up in meetings over the weekend.

“Our concerns are still real. Whether it happens next week or not, I can’t say,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “In addition to the possibility of a nuclear test, we are also concerned about a long-range missile test. And so we are monitoring both very carefully.

But Monday’s meeting with Xi in Bali, Indonesia, will undoubtedly remain part of the meeting in Cambodia and form part of the trilateral talks.

“One thing that President Biden definitely wants to do with our closest allies is to preview what they’re going to do and also ask the (South Korean) and Japanese leaders, ‘What do you want me to bring up? What do you want me to come in with?'” Sullivan said. .

Biden and Xi spoke by phone five times after the president moved into the White House. They traveled extensively together in China and the United States while serving as vice presidents of their respective countries.

Both entered Monday’s meeting against the backdrop of significant political events. Biden did better than expected in the US midterm elections and Xi was elevated to an unprecedented third term in China’s Communist Party.

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

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

It also includes the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing claims. Biden has previously pledged to use US military power to defend the island from invasion. The issue is one of the most contentious between Biden and Xi.

Biden will raise the issue of North Korea, emphasizing China’s critical role in controlling what is dangerous to the region, Sullivan said.

Biden has raised the issue repeatedly in his calls with Xi up to this point, but Sullivan emphasized the U.S. view that China plays a critical role and must be seen in its own interests.

“If North Korea continues to go down this path, it will mean more U.S. military and security presence in the region,” Sullivan said. “And[China]has a desire to play a constructive role in curbing North Korea’s malign tendencies.” It is up to them whether they choose to do so.”

Sullivan said he would elaborate on Biden’s position on the issue, saying that “North Korea is a threat not only to the United States, but to[South Korea]and Japan, but to the peace and stability of the region.”

Sullivan pointed out that the meeting will focus on a better understanding of positions on a series of important issues, but will not bring any major breakthroughs or dramatic changes in relations.

Instead, “leaders come to a better understanding and work on their teams” to continue working on those issues, Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden flew to Cambodia.

The meeting, which will be held on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, was the result of “several weeks of intense” discussions between the two sides, Sullivan said, and is considered the first of a series of contacts between Biden. The leaders and their teams.


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