PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday laid out America’s full commitment to Southeast Asian nations, vowing at a Cambodia summit to stand up to China’s growing dominance in the region — without naming another superpower.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was not in the room at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh. But Xi sat down on the process just two days before he and Biden are due to meet for the first time in a long-awaited face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
The Biden White House has named Xi as its biggest economic and military rival of the next century, and while the president never called China out directly, his message was aimed squarely at Beijing.
“Together, we will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security to defend against critical threats to the rule of law and threats to the rule of law,” Biden said. We are building an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, sustainable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”
The United States has long derided China’s violations of the international rules-based order — from trade to shipping to intellectual property — and Biden sought to emphasize his administration’s solidarity with a region Americans often ignore.
His work in Phnom Penh is aimed at setting the stage for a meeting with Xi – his first face-to-face with the Chinese leader since taking office – which is due to take place on Monday at this year’s G20 summit of the world’s richest economies. It is held in Indonesia on the island of Bali.
Much of Biden’s agenda in ASEAN was to show resistance to Beijing.
He was supposed to push for better freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where the United States believes countries can fly and sail wherever international law allows. The United States has declared that China’s resistance to this freedom challenges the world’s rules-based order.
Additionally, in an effort to crack down on illegal fishing by China, the United States began an effort to use radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track dark vessels and illegal fishing. Biden also pledged to help with the region’s infrastructure plan — meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative — as well as lead a regional response to the ongoing violence in Myanmar.
But it is Xi’s meeting that will be the highlight of Biden’s week abroad, coming just after his party made a surprising showing in the US midterm elections, emboldening the president to travel abroad. Biden will tour the world, making his first stop at a major climate conference in Egypt before arriving in Cambodia for a pair of meetings over the weekend before heading to Indonesia.
In the last two decades, there has been skepticism among Asian countries regarding America’s commitment to the region. Former President Barack Obama came to power with a sweeping statement that the United States was “pivoting to Asia,” but his administration was distracted by growing involvement in Middle East wars.
Donald Trump has pursued a more introverted foreign policy, spending much of his time trying to get a better trade deal with China while praising Xi’s autocratic instincts. Declaring China as the United States’ biggest rival, Biden again tried to focus on Beijing, but had to devote extraordinary resources to helping Ukraine fend off Russian aggression.
But the point this week is to refocus the US on Asia – as China continues to exert its power over the region, taking advantage of the vacuum left by US inattention.
Biden declared the 10 countries that make up ASEAN “the heart of my administration’s strategy in the Pacific” and that his presidency – which included hosting leaders in Washington earlier this year – would usher in “a new era in our cooperation”. However, he mistakenly introduced the host country as “Colombia” at the beginning of his speech.
Biden said: We will build a better future, the better future we all say we want to see.
Biden was only the second US president to visit Cambodia after Obama’s visit in 2012. And like Obama then, the president made no public comments on Saturday about Cambodia’s dark history or the role of the United States in the country’s tortured past.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon authorized a covert bombing campaign in Cambodia to prevent North Vietnam from advancing on South Vietnam. The United States also supported a coup that led in part to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that orchestrated a genocide that killed more than 1.5 million people between 1975 and 1979. .
One of the regime’s infamous killing fields, where nearly 20,000 Cambodians were executed and dumped in mass graves, is just a few miles from central Phnom Penh. There, a monument with thousands of skulls stands as a stark reminder of the atrocities of generations ago. White House aides said Biden had no plans to meet.
As usual, Biden met with the leader of the host country at the beginning of the summit. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia for decades with little tolerance for dissent. Opposition leaders have been jailed and killed, and his government has been accused of widespread corruption, according to human rights groups.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Biden will “engage in all areas to serve American interests and to advance America’s strategic position and our values.” He said Biden was meeting with Hun Sen because he was the leader of the host country.
US officials said Biden urged the Cambodian leader to make a greater commitment to democracy and “opening up the civil and political space” ahead of the country’s next election.
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