May 22, 2022

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Biden hosts Southeast Asian leaders as he tries to refocus on China

Biden hosts Southeast Asian leaders as he tries to refocus on China

WASHINGTON – President Biden on Thursday began hosting Southeast Asian leaders at the White House for a two-day visit, delivering a message of solidarity – and aimed at providing a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region – even in much of his administration. He still focuses on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The summit, which concludes on Friday, aims to cover a range of topics, including trade, human rights and climate change. But it’s also part of Biden’s foreign policy team’s effort to highlight one of the president’s primary goals: to form a united front against China while increasingly projecting its economic and military might around the world.

As a candidate, Biden promised to make China the focus of his foreign policy. Instead, a senior administration official admitted to reporters this week that the war in Europe created daily demands that consumed the time and energy of the president and his team.

But the official, who requested anonymity to discuss preparations for the summit, said Biden remains concerned and focused on the need to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific. The official said the meeting of Biden and other world leaders in Washington was an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment.

On Thursday evening, the White House announced new investments of about $150 million in the region as part of a series of agreements between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

US investments include $40 million for clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. A senior White House official said the administration has estimated that the money will be used to help raise or fund up to $2 billion to build the projects.

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The United States also pledged to invest $60 million to deploy additional naval assets—led by the Coast Guard—in the region, and to perform training and other activities in coordination with other nations aimed at maritime law enforcement.

The department said it will spend $15 million to expand health surveillance programs in Southeast Asia and better detect Covid-19 and other airborne diseases in the region.

The president will also travel to Japan and South Korea from May 20-24, a trip that will largely focus on China. White House officials did not provide details about the trip, but the president is expected to meet with fellow leaders of the other so-called Quartet nations: Australia, India and Japan.

On Thursday, ASEAN leaders met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers before meeting in a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Gina Raimondo, the Commerce Secretary, and executives from US industries.

Mr. Biden welcomed the leaders to the White House Thursday night with a brief ceremony on the South Lawn. The group took a picture before entering the White House for dinner.

On Friday, Asian leaders will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken in the morning, then with Mr. Biden at the White House later in the day. According to the management official, the group will discuss business opportunities; transit through disputed waterways, including the South China Sea; and other topics.

One such topic is likely ASEAN member Myanmar, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted as the country’s civilian leader last year when staged a coup. The administration official said that the United States and countries in the region are focused on the situation and are frustrated by it.

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A US national security official said the United States and other countries agreed to leave an empty chair during the summit for Myanmar as a way to express their disapproval of its military’s actions. The official also said the United States supports ASEAN’s decision to ban a military representative from Myanmar from attending the summit.

The meeting is also intended as an opportunity for Ms. Harris to demonstrate her focus on the region. She led a US delegation to Asia last summer, using a speech in Singapore to denounce China’s “illegal claims” over the South China Sea, which she said “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

The administration official said Ms. Harris plans to use Friday’s meeting with Asian leaders to focus on climate action, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.