PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — U.S. President Joe Biden offered a full American commitment to Southeast Asian nations on Saturday, vowing at a Cambodian summit to help counter China’s growing dominance in the region, without mentioning another superpower.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was not present at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. But Xi hovered over the process just two days before his and Biden’s much-anticipated first face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
The Biden White House has declared Xi’s nation the biggest economic and military rival of the next century, and while the president never addressed China, his message was aimed at Beijing.
“Together, we will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security, to defend against major threats to the rules-based order and threats to the rule of law,” Biden said. “We will build an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”
The U.S. has long taunted China for violating the international rules-based order — from trade to shipping to intellectual property — and Biden has sought to emphasize his administration’s solidarity with a region too often forgotten by Americans.
His work in Phnom Penh was to set the stage for his meeting with Xi – the first face-to-face with a Chinese leader since taking office – on Monday at this year’s G20 summit of the world’s richest economies. will take place in Indonesia, on the island of Bali.
A big part of Biden’s agenda in ASEAN has been to show opposition to Beijing.
He was to push for better freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where the US believes nations can fly and sail wherever international law allows. The US has declared China’s opposition to this freedom a challenge to the rules-based world order.
In addition, to combat unregulated Chinese fishing, the US has begun efforts to use radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track so-called dark shipping and illegal fishing. Biden also pledged support for a regional infrastructure initiative that targeted China’s Belt and Road program, as well as leading a regional response to the ongoing violence in Myanmar.
But it is the meeting with Xi that will be the highlight of Biden’s week abroad, which comes on the heels of his party’s surprising display of strength in the US midterm elections, cheering the president as he travels abroad. Biden will tour the world, first stopping at a major climate conference in Egypt, before heading to Cambodia for a pair of weekend summits before heading to Indonesia.
Over the past two decades, Asian states have been skeptical of America’s commitment to the region. Former President Barack Obama took office declaring that the US would “pivot to Asia,” but his administration was sidelined by growing involvement in Middle East wars.
Donald Trump has pursued a more inward-looking foreign policy and has spent much of his time in office trying to broker a better trade deal with China while praising Xi’s authoritarian instincts. After declaring China the US’s biggest rival, Biden tried to refocus on Beijing, but had to devote an extraordinary amount of resources to helping Ukraine fend off a Russian invasion.
But this week is all about focusing America on Asia, just as China has taken advantage of the vacuum left by America’s inattention to continue to assert its power in the region.
Biden said the ten countries that make up ASEAN are “the core of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and that his tenure, including hosting leaders in Washington earlier this year, ushers in “a new era of our cooperation.” However, at the start of his acceptance speech, he mistakenly identified the host country as “Colombia”.
“We’re going to build a better future, the better future that we all say we want to see,” Biden said.
Biden was only the second US president to set foot in Cambodia since Obama visited in 2012. Like Obama, he did not speak publicly on Saturday about Cambodia’s dark history or the role of the United States in the nation’s troubled past.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon authorized a secret campaign of carpet bombing in Cambodia to stop North Vietnam’s advance on South Vietnam. The U.S. also supported the coup, which was partly fueled by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that went on to orchestrate the genocide that led to the 1975-1979 coup. more than 1.5 million died
Just a few miles from downtown Phnom Penh is one of the regime’s infamous killing fields, where nearly 20,000 Cambodians were executed and dumped in mass graves. There stands a memorial with thousands of skulls, a stark reminder of the atrocities committed generations ago. White House aides said Biden had no plans to visit.
As usual, Biden met with the leader of the host country at the start of the summit. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, ruled Cambodia for decades with little tolerance for dissent. Opposition leaders have been jailed and killed, and his administration has been accused of widespread corruption, according to human rights groups.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Biden would “comprehensively serve America’s interests and advance America’s strategic position and our values.” He said Biden met with Hun Sen because he was the leader of the host country.
U.S. officials said Biden urged the Cambodian leader to make a stronger commitment to democracy and “reopen the civil and political space” ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.
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