PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — President Joe Biden vowed Saturday that the United States would work with a strategically vital coalition of Southeast Asian nations, telling leaders that “we are going to build a better future that we all want to see” at the a region where America’s rival China is also working to expand its influence.
Citing the three Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits in which he participated as president, Biden said the 10-nation bloc is “at the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and vowed to work together to build a region that it be “free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure”.
“I look forward to continuing our work together with ASEAN and each of you to deepen peace and prosperity throughout the region to resolve challenges from the South China Sea to Myanmar and find innovative solutions to shared challenges,” Biden said. citing climate change. and health security between the areas of collaboration.
Biden’s efforts at this year’s ASEAN summit are meant to lay the groundwork for his highly anticipated meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first face-to-face meeting of Biden’s presidency with a leader whose nation, the US . rival.
Biden and Xi will meet on Monday at the Group of 20 summit that brings together the leaders of the world’s largest economies, which is being held this year in Indonesia, on the island of Bali.
Traveling to Phnom Penh early Saturday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden will raise issues such as freedom of navigation and illegal and unregulated fishing by China with ASEAN leaders, with the aim of demonstrating the assertiveness of the US against Beijing.
The freedom of navigation refers to a dispute involving the South China Sea, where the United States says it can sail and fly where international law allows 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 in preventing any nation from engaging in “sustained intimidation and coercion that would be fundamentally adverse to ASEAN nations and other countries.”
“There is a real demand signal for that,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday. Referring to the PRC, Sullivan continued, “I think the PRC may not like that fact, but they certainly recognize and understand it.”
A new initiative related to those efforts that Biden will discuss on Saturday focuses on maritime awareness, specifically using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track dark shipping and illegal fishing, Sullivan said.
Biden’s visit to Cambodia, the second by a US president, continues his administration’s push to demonstrate its investments in the South Pacific, highlighted earlier this year when the White House hosted a summit of the ASEAN in Washington, the first of its kind. He also named one of his top advisers, Yohannes Abraham, as an official envoy to ASEAN, another way the White House has highlighted that commitment.
This year, ASEAN is upgrading the US to “comprehensive strategic partnership” status, a largely symbolic upgrade to their relationship, but one that puts Washington on the same footing as China, which was granted the distinction last year.
Biden opened Saturday in Phnom Penh by meeting with Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, the host of the regional summit. He also took part in the traditional family photo with Southeast Asian leaders, one that required some reshuffling as the gregarious Biden was too busy shaking hands with other heads of state, and will then attend a gala dinner hosted by a parallel summit in Cambodia. focusing on East Asia.
Another issue Biden focused on is Myanmar, where the military junta overthrew the ruling government in February 2021 and arrested its democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. When meeting with Hun Sen, Biden stressed that the US was committed to the return of democracy in Myanmar, which had been moving steadily towards a democratic form of government before the coup.
Biden also raised concerns about human rights in Cambodia. In a statement after the meeting with Hun Sen, the White House said Biden had urged the prime minister, an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic nation, to “reopen civic and political space” ahead of the 2023 election.
Biden, according to the White House, also pressured Hun Sen to release activists, including Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who was convicted of treason, as the prime minister’s longtime government aimed to crack down on his opposition. The White House said Biden also raised concerns about activities at the Ream Naval Base, the expansion of which Cambodian officials described as a collaborative China-China effort.
At the US-ASEAN summit, there was an empty chair where a Myanmar representative would have sat if its leaders had not been barred from participating in official ASEAN meetings.
In his brief comments on Saturday, Biden misidentified the host nation, Cambodia, as “Colombia,” a mistake he also made Thursday night as he was leaving the US.
Biden will take part in the East Asia summit sessions on Sunday, including a three-way meeting with the leaders of South Korea and Japan, before leaving for the G-20 summit in Bali.
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