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

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

President Joe Biden underscored the US partnership with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries 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 the highly anticipated Group of 20 summit next week in Indonesia where Biden will meet with Xi for the first time in person since he took office. The ASEAN meetings – along with Sunday’s East Asia Summit, which is also being held in Phnom Penh – will be a chance for the president to speak with US allies before sitting down with Xi.

In remarks to the summit, Biden announced “another critical step” toward building on the group’s progress as he detailed the launch of the US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which, he said, “will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security, defend against the significant threats to rule based order and to threats to the rule of law, and to build an Indo-Pacific that’s free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.” He touted existing US financial commitments to ASEAN as he noted a budget request for $850 million in assistance for Southeast Asia.

“This is my third trip, my third summit – second in person – and it’s testament to the importance the United States places in our relationship with ASEAN and our commitment to ASEAN’s centrality. ASEAN is the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. And we continue to strengthen our commitment to work in lockstep with an empowered, unified ASEAN,” Biden said in brief opening remarks as the summit began.

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 a summit between Biden and ASEAN leaders in Washington earlier this year.

Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One, “was intent on elevating our engagement in the Indo-Pacific” from the start of his presidency, and his attendance at the ASEAN and East Asia summits this weekend will highlight his work so far, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework announced earlier this year and security partnership efforts.

“He’s coming into this set of summits with that record of accomplishment and purpose behind him, and he wants to be able to use the next 36 hours to build on that foundation to take American engagement forward, and also to deliver a series of concrete, practical initiatives,” Sullivan said.

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

Biden will also highlight a “forward-deployed posture” toward regional defense, Sullivan added, to show that the US 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’re gonna work together to develop an integrated electric vehicle ecosystem in Southeast Asia, enabling the region to pursue clean energy, economic development, and ambitious emissions reductions targets,” he said of the initiative.

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

US President Joe Biden (L) meets Cambodia's 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 be meeting with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on Sunday following multiple 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 has been one that Biden has attempted to bridge.

The Japanese and the South Koreans find themselves united in concern about Kim Jong Un’s missile tests, as well as the prospect of a seventh nuclear weapons test. North Korea has ramped up its tests this year, having carried out missile tests on 32 days in 2022, according to a CNN count. That’s compared to just eight in 2021 and four in 2020, with the latest launch coming on Wednesday.

Sullivan suggested the trilateral meeting will not lead to specific deliverables, but rather, enhanced 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 is concerned about the North Koreans conducting a seventh nuclear test but can’t say if it will come during the weekend of meetings.

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

But the Monday meeting with Xi in Bali, Indonesia, will undoubtedly hang over the summits in Cambodia, and will be part of those trilateral conversations.

“One thing that President Biden certainly wants to do with our closest allies is preview 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 go in with?’” Sullivan said, adding that it “will be a topic but it will not 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 extensively together, both in China and the United States, when both were serving as their country’s vice president.

Both enter Monday’s meeting on the back of significant political events. Biden fared better than expected in 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 dynamic of their meeting.

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

That includes the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing claims. Biden has vowed in the past 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, with an emphasis on 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 calls with Xi up to this point, but Sullivan underscored the US view that China plays a critical role – and one that should be viewed within its own self-interest.

“If North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region,” Sullivan said. “And so (China) has an interest in playing a constructive role in restraining North Korea’s worst tendencies. Whether they choose to do so or not is of course up to them.”

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

Sullivan suggested the meeting will focus on a better understanding of positions on a series of critical issues, but is not likely to result in any major breakthroughs or dramatic shifts in the relationship.

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

The meeting, set to take place on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, was the result of “several weeks of intensive” discussions between the two sides, Sullivan said, and is viewed by Biden as the start of a series of engagements between the leaders and their teams.

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