PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — President Joe Biden officially begins his participation in a conference of Southeast Asian nations on Saturday, seeking to underscore the United States’ commitment to the region where a looming China is also striving to expand its influence.
Biden’s efforts at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit are aimed at laying the groundwork for his highly anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping – Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping. a leader whose nation the United States now regards as the strongest economic and military rival.
The two leaders will meet on Monday at the G20 summit, which brings together the leaders of the world’s largest economies, to be held this year in Indonesia on the island of Bali.
Traveling to Phnom Penh earlier on Saturday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden would raise issues such as freedom of navigation and China’s illegal and unregulated fishing with ASEAN leaders – in the purpose of demonstrating US assertiveness against Beijing.
Freedom of Navigation refers to a dispute involving the South China Sea – where the United States says it can sail and fly anywhere international law permits and China believes such missions are destabilizing. Sullivan said the United States has a key role to play as a stabilizing force in the region and to prevent any nation from engaging in “sustained intimidation and coercion that would be fundamentally unfavorable to ASEAN nations and other countries”.
“There’s a real demand signal for that,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday. Referring to the People’s Republic of China, Sullivan continued, “I think the PRC may not like that fact, but they certainly recognize it and understand it.”
A new initiative related to those efforts that Biden will discuss later Saturday focuses on maritime outreach — specifically using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track black shipping and illegal fishing, Sullivan said.
Biden’s visit to Cambodia – the second ever by a US president – continues his administration’s efforts to demonstrate its investments in the South Pacific, which was underscored earlier this year when the White House hosted a government summit. ‘ASEAN in Washington, the first of its kind. He also called on one of his main collaborators, Yohannes Abraham, as the official envoy of the bloc of 10 countries that make up ASEAN, another way for the White House to underline this commitment.
This year, ASEAN is elevating the United States to “comprehensive strategic partnership” status — a largely symbolic upgrade to their relationship, but one that puts Washington on par with China, which earned the accolade last year.
Biden will start his day in Phnom Penh by meeting Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, host of the regional summit. He will then speak at the annual US-ASEAN summit and participate in the traditional family photo with Southeast Asian leaders, and attend a gala dinner hosted by a parallel summit in Cambodia focusing on the East Asia.
Another topic Biden will address is Myanmar, where the military junta overthrew the ruling government in February 2021 and arrested its democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. While in Phnom Penh, the president will discuss with other leaders how they can “coordinate more closely to continue to impose costs and increase pressure” on the military, Sullivan said, as it continues to repress the people of Myanmar, who had gradually moved towards a form of democratic governance before the coup.
Biden will take part in East Asia summit meetings on Sunday, including a meeting with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, before leaving for the G20 summit in Bali.