PHNOM PENH, Cambodia >> President Joe Biden told members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Saturday in Cambodia that the United States was committed to deepening “peace and prosperity throughout the region” by protecting against threats including climate change and the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The president was betting that an in-person appearance at the ASEAN gathering in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, would help reinforce his administration’s broad efforts to promote human rights in a country where democracy has been suppressed and to counter China’s rise, even as ASEAN countries embrace economic ties with Beijing.
“We will build a better future we all say we want to see,” Biden said at his third ASEAN summit as president, “for all one billion people in our countries.”
Biden, on the second leg of a three-country international swing, landed in Cambodia on Saturday morning after an overnight flight from Egypt, where he stopped briefly on Friday to address the international climate summit known as COP27.
It was his second overnight flight in two days, and though the president did not appear publicly in Phnom Penh until late afternoon, the travel seemed to be taking a toll: In his opening remarks at the ASEAN summit, Biden thanked the prime minister of “Colombia,” not Cambodia, for welcoming him.
In his brief speech, the president announced a series of new initiatives between the United States and the ASEAN countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The initiatives include efforts to promote electric vehicle use in the region, to improve clean-water access and to offer loans to support female entrepreneurs.
This year, the Biden administration has focused much of its foreign policy attention on the war in Ukraine and on trying to counter China’s rising influence and military aggression. But the president’s own strategy has centered on more personal meetings with world leaders. Biden was last in Asia in May, when he visited South Korea and Japan, and just before that he hosted leaders of Southeast Asian nations at the White House.
ASEAN summits usually do not produce major policy breakthroughs with help from the United States. And the gatherings were not a priority for Biden’s predecessor President Donald Trump, who made only one brief appearance at an ASEAN meeting — in 2017, the year he took office.
But analysts said that Biden’s presence sent an important message to the Southeast Asian leaders in attendance about his administration’s priorities.
“This is really a way for the Biden administration to show that they are committed to returning to normal diplomacy, to showing up,” Gregory B. Poling, a senior fellow and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters ahead of the meetings.
“Though it’s trite to say,” he added, “showing up does matter, in Asia in particular.”
Ahead of the summit, ASEAN elevated its relationship with the United States to what is called a comprehensive strategic partnership. The designation puts America on the same footing as China — which established a similar agreement last year — and Australia.
On Saturday morning, an ASEAN spokesperson told reporters that he expected American and ASEAN officials to begin their talks at the summit with a discussion on climate change and other economic issues. Still, much of Biden’s time was expected to be spent promoting policies that could curb China’s regional influence.
Biden’s advisers said that in the president’s meetings on Saturday and Sunday, beginning with Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, he would emphasize the need for freedom of navigation, a principle that the Pentagon says demonstrates the United States’ commitment to free maritime passage in the increasingly militarized South China Sea.
Biden also planned to discuss the need to target unlawful commerce operations, including China’s behemoth fishing industry. (After depleting stocks in its own coastal waters, China fishes in any ocean in the world, on a scale that dwarfs some countries’ entire fleets near their own waters.)
After the president’s meeting on Saturday with Hun Sen, White House officials said that Biden pressed the prime minister about Chinese military activities at a Cambodian naval base, human rights and free elections.
Biden, the officials said in a description of the meeting, “urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to reopen civic and political space ahead of” general elections next year in Cambodia.
“He also called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges, including U.S.-Cambodian dual citizen Seng Theary,” they said, adding, “President Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country.”
Beijing’s recent economic stumbles may have given the United States an opening to push for greater influence in the region. China’s growth slowed significantly this year amid a crisis in its real estate sector and the continuing effects of COVID-19 lockdowns across the country.
Chinese officials last month abruptly delayed releasing standard economic statistics, raising questions of whether the nation was falling short of the growth forecasts its leaders released earlier in the year.
The International Monetary Fund estimated last month that China’s economy would grow only 3.2% in 2022, down from its estimate of 5.7% a year ago, and that growth across Asia was suffering under that weight.
“The Chinese economy is undergoing a sharp and uncharacteristic slowdown, with growth in 2022 forecast to be the second lowest since 1977,” IMF officials wrote. That slowdown, they wrote, “has important implications for regional supply chains because it is the main export market for many countries and an important source of imported inputs.”
ASEAN leaders at the summit reiterated their strong ties with Beijing while taking pains not to upset Biden. In a joint statement on Saturday with China, Cambodia reiterated its support for Beijing’s “One China Policy” — including opposition to independence for Taiwan.
But on Thursday, a Cambodian official told CNBC that U.S.-China relations were critical to regional development in South Asia, and that the ASEAN countries were staying out of the economic competition between Washington and Beijing.
“ASEAN remains neutral in this competition, and we don’t want to choose sides,” Kung Phoak, Cambodia’s secretary of state of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, told the network. “ASEAN wants to work closely with both countries.”
While in Cambodia, Biden was also expected to address human rights and promote democratic ideals, including in discussions with Hun Sen, who has cracked down on political dissent and jailed dozens of members of the country’s main opposition party.
Among the president’s other concerns, his advisers said, is growing political violence in Myanmar, which has been cut off from the West and shunned by its neighbors after its military seized power last year and imposed a brutal crackdown.
In recent weeks, Myanmar has embraced deeper ties with Russia, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Cambodia that the president was interested in discussing “how we can coordinate more closely to continue to impose costs and raise pressure on the junta in Naypyitaw as they continue to take steps that repress and oppress their citizenry.”
On Sunday, Biden will join a meeting with Japanese and Korean leaders where they will focus on security issues in the Indo-Pacific and discuss threats posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. He will also discuss his planned meeting, scheduled for Monday, with President Xi Jinping of China.
Sullivan said that there was an increasing demand for American leadership in the region. “I think the PRC may not love that fact,” Sullivan said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China, “but they certainly acknowledge it and understand it. And that’s some of the context for the meeting on Monday with Xi.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.