Leaving behind a better-than-expected Democratic performance in the November 8 Congressional elections, U.S. President Joe Biden heads to a whirlwind week of diplomacy with Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific leaders amid an intensifying rivalry with China, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and increased provocations from North Korea.
Here are the key points he’ll be dealing with during his trip to Cambodia and Indonesia:
Summits, bilateral meetings
Biden is set to arrive in Phnom Penh Saturday morning after attending COP27, the United Nations Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
In Cambodia, he will participate in the ASEAN–U.S. Summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and in the East Asia Summit (EAS), a grouping of ASEAN and dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States.
He will meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen, chair of the 10 Southeast Asian nations bloc this year, and the region’s longest-ruling dictator who has been in office in Cambodia since 1985.
Biden heads to Bali, Indonesia, Sunday for the G-20 summit with leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies. On Monday, he is set to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping – their first in-person engagement since Biden took office in 2021.
He will meet summit host Indonesian President Joko Widodo, as well as the new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who also has recently taken office.
He’ll hold bilateral and trilateral meetings with the prime minister of Japan and the president of Korea to discuss the continuing threats posed by North Korea.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, Chinese increased militarization in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, and North Korean missile and nuclear threats will be areas of focus for Biden during his visit, along with finding areas of cooperation on transnational challenges such as climate change, preventing future pandemics, and global food and energy security.
It will be tricky diplomacy as Biden tries to compete against Beijing’s influence in Southeast Asia and broaden the coalition to isolate Moscow. Countries in the region rely on Beijing for economic growth but need Washington’s security umbrella to deter China’s increasingly muscular military posture. Some count on Russia’s role as balancer amid this U.S.-China rivalry.
The region’s biggest source of anxiety is escalation between Washington and Beijing, according to Evan Laksmana, senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
“What happens if there's a Taiwan contingency scenario and the U.S. requests access to Singapore, to Indonesia, to the Philippines? Will they allow access, and therefore put us in the crosshairs of the Chinese? This is something that the region doesn't have an answer to yet,” he told VOA.
In addition, Biden will be in Asia amid increased military maneuvers from North Korea, including missile launches and military flights near its border with South Korea. In an interview with VOA, John Kirby, White House National Security Council’s director of strategic communications, said the U.S. is prepared for more provocations from Kim Jong Un while Biden is in the region — including Pyongyang’s first nuclear test since 2017.
In Phnom Penh, ASEAN will hold related summits with partners including China, Russia, and the United States. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend the meetings in Phnom Penh, while Moscow is sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
These meetings provide a way for the bloc to manage regional fault lines on conflicts that include territorial disputes in the South China Sea among some of its members and Beijing, the military coup in Myanmar, and now Russia’s war in Ukraine.
ASEAN countries have varying degrees of trade and security ties with Washington, Beijing and Moscow. As with the U.S.-China competition, they are wary of their interests being damaged by competition between the West and Moscow. “These countries are going to be reluctant to do anything that upsets the balance,” Stacie Goddard, who teaches great power politics at Wellesley College told VOA.
Biden’s Phnom Penh visit will build on the May special summit he hosted in Washington, where he announced modest additional funding to increase engagement with Southeast Asian nations, including in the maritime domain. He is set to sign the ASEAN-U.S. Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, a similar agreement to one the bloc entered with China in 2021.
Trade and investment
Marc Mealy, senior vice president for policy with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, told VOA the trade group is optimistic the meetings will increase cooperation, including on energy transition efforts, digital trade and creating more resilient supply chains.
Mealy noted that Washington’s top 20 trading partners include four ASEAN members – Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.
Chinese Premier Li is set to push for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area “Version 3.0.” with the bloc’s 10 leaders. Biden will offer the U.S. alternative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, which Washington launched in May. IPEF does not include market access or tariff reduction provisions — trade incentives desired by countries in the region.