Ahead of Xi meeting, Biden challenges China – POLITICO

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — U.S. President Joe Biden offered unqualified U.S. engagement to Southeast Asian nations on Saturday, pledging at a summit in Cambodia to help fight China’s growing dominance in the the region – not to mention the other superpower by name.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was not in the hall at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, summit in Phnom Penh. But Xi hovered over the proceedings just two days before he and Biden had their highly anticipated first face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

The White House Biden has declared Xi’s nation its greatest economic and military rival of the next century and although the president never called China 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 significant threats to the rules-based order and threats to the rule of law,” Biden said. “We will build a free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific.”

The United States has long mocked China’s violation of the rules-based international order — from trade to shipping to intellectual property — and Biden has tried to underscore his administration’s solidarity with a region. that the United States has too often neglected.

His work in Phnom Penh was aimed at setting a framework for his meeting with Xi – his first face-to-face with the Chinese leader since taking office – which is to be held at the G20 summit of the world’s richest economies on Monday, this year. takes place in Indonesia on the island of Bali.

A big part of Biden’s ASEAN agenda was to show resistance to Beijing.

He was to push for greater freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where the United States believes nations can fly and sail wherever international law permits. The United States had said that China’s resistance to this freedom challenged the rules-based global order.

Additionally, in an effort to crack down on unregulated Chinese fishing, the United States has begun using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track so-called smuggling and illegal fishing. Biden also pledged to help the region’s infrastructure initiative — intended to counter China’s Belt and Road program — as well as lead a regional response to ongoing violence in Myanmar.

But it is Xi’s meeting that will be the main event of Biden’s week abroad, which comes just after his party showed surprising strength in the US midterm elections, emboldening the president as he was heading abroad. Biden will tour the world, having made his first stop at a major climate conference in Egypt before arriving in Cambodia for two summits over the weekend before heading to Indonesia.

There has been skepticism among Asian states about US engagement in the region over the past two decades. Former President Barack Obama took office with the high-profile declaration that the United States would “pivot to Asia”, but his administration has been hijacked by growing involvement in wars in the Middle East.

Donald Trump has pursued a more inward-looking foreign policy and spent much of his time in office trying to negotiate a better trade deal with China, while praising Xi’s authoritarian instincts. Declaring China America’s biggest rival, Biden again tried to focus on Beijing but had to devote an extraordinary amount of resources to helping Ukraine repel the Russian invasion.

But this week is meant to refocus America on Asia – just as China, taking advantage of the vacuum left by American inattention, has continued to wield power over the region.

Biden said the ten nations that make up ASEAN are “the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and that his tenure – which included hosting the leaders in Washington earlier this year – begins “a new era in our cooperation”. He, however, mistakenly identified the host country as “Colombia” while offering his thanks at the start of his speech.

“We are going to build a better future, a better future that we all say we want to see,” Biden said.

Biden was only the second US president to set foot in Cambodia, following Obama’s visit in 2012. And as Obama did then, the president made no public remarks on Cambodia’s dark history on Saturday. or the role of the United States in the nation’s tortured past.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon authorized a covert campaign of carpet bombing in Cambodia to cut off movement from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The US also backed a coup that led, in part, to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that then orchestrated a genocide that resulted in the deaths of over of 1.5 million people between 1975 and 1979.

One of the regime’s infamous killing fields, where nearly 20,000 Cambodians were executed and thrown into mass graves, is a few kilometers from the center of Phnom Penh. There, a memorial with thousands of skulls stands as a living reminder of the atrocities committed just generations ago. White House aides said Biden had not planned a visit.

As usual, Biden met with the host country’s leader at the start of the summit. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge, ruled Cambodia for decades without tolerating dissent. Opposition leaders have been jailed and killed, and his administration has been accused of widespread corruption, according to human rights groups.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Biden would “commit at all levels to serving America’s interests and advancing America’s strategic position and our values.” He said Biden was meeting Hun Sen because he was the leader of the host country.

U.S. officials said Biden had urged the Cambodian leader to commit more to democracy and “reopen civic and political space” ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.

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