Biden lands in Cambodia to meet Asian allies ahead of Xi meeting

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

President Joe Biden arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday morning local time for a series of summits and meetings between the president of the United States and the leaders of Southeast Asian nations.

The weekend of meetings in Cambodia comes ahead of next week’s highly anticipated Group of 20 summit in Indonesia where Biden will meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time in person since taking office. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings – along with the East Asia Summit on Sunday, which is also being held in Phnom Penh – will be an opportunity for the president to talk to US allies before sitting down with Xi.

Biden will hold a bilateral meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as he seeks to build on a summit between Biden and ASEAN leaders in Washington earlier this year.

Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One, “he intends to elevate our engagement in the Indo-Pacific” from the start of his presidency, and his presence at the ASEAN and East Asia summits this weekend will draw attention to his work. so far, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework announced earlier this year and security partnership efforts.

“He comes into this series of summits with that record of achievement and purpose behind him, and he wants to be able to use the next 36 hours to build on that foundation to move America’s engagement in his forward, and also to deliver a series of concrete, practical initiatives,” said Sullivan.

Among those practical initiatives, Sullivan noted, are new ones on maritime cooperation, digital connectivity, and economic investment. Biden is expected to launch a new maritime domain effort “focused on using radio frequencies from commercial satellites to be able to track dark vessels, illegal and unregulated fishing, and also to improve the ability of countries in the region to respond to disasters and humanitarian crises,” Sullivan said.

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Biden will also highlight a “pre-positioned posture” toward regional defense, Sullivan added, to show that the United States is on the front foot in security cooperation.

There will also be a focus on Myanmar and discussions on coordination “to continue to impose costs and increase pressure on the junta,” which seized power from the country’s democratically elected government in a coup in February 2021.

There are four defining global threats looming over the Biden trip: Russia’s war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China, the existential problem of climate change and the potential for a global recession in the coming months. Other flashpoints, such as North Korea’s quick provocations and uncertainty over Iran’s nuclear program, will also be considered.

While in Phnom Penh, Biden will meet with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on Sunday following multiple weapons tests by North Korea, Sullivan said. The meeting is noteworthy considering the historical tensions between Japan and South Korea, and the relationship between the two staunch allies in the United States has been one that Biden has tried to bridge.

The Japanese and South Koreans find themselves united in concern about Kim Jong Un’s missile tests, as well as the possibility of a seventh nuclear weapons test. North Korea has increased its testing this year, having conducted missile tests on 32 days in 2022, according to CNN’s account. That’s compared to just eight in 2021 and four in 2020, with the latest launch coming on Wednesday.

Sullivan suggested that the trilateral meeting will not lead to specific achievements, but rather, better security cooperation amid a range of threats.

The trio of world leaders, Sullivan told reporters, will “be able to discuss broader security issues in the Indo-Pacific and also, specifically, the threats posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.”

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Sullivan said Thursday that the administration is concerned about North Korea conducting a seventh nuclear test but could not say whether it will come during the weekend of the meetings.

“Our concern is still real. Whether it happens in the next week or not, I can’t say,” Sullivan said earlier this week. “We are also concerned about further long-range missile tests as well as the possibility of a nuclear test. And so, we’ll be watching carefully for both of them. ”

But Monday’s meeting with Xi in Bali, Indonesia, will undoubtedly hang over the summits in Cambodia, and will be part of those trilateral talks.

“One thing President Biden certainly wants to do with our closest allies is preview what he plans to do, and also ask the leaders of (South Korea) and Japan, ‘what would you like to I raised it? What do you want me to go in with?’” Sullivan said, adding that “it will be a topic but it won’t be the main event of the trilateral.”

Biden and Xi have spoken by phone five times since the president entered the White House. They traveled extensively together, in China and the United States, when both served as vice president of their country.

Both come into Monday’s meeting on the back of significant political events. Biden did better than expected in the US mid-term elections and Xi was promoted to an unprecedented third term by the Chinese Communist Party.

US officials declined to speculate on how the two leaders’ political positions might affect the dynamics of their meeting.

The major bilateral meeting between Biden and Xi will focus on “sharpening” each leader’s understanding of the other’s priorities, Sullivan told reporters.

That includes the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing claims. Biden has promised in the past to use US military force to protect the island from invasion. The issue is among the most contentious between Biden and Xi.

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Biden will also raise the issue of North Korea, with an emphasis on the critical role China can play in managing what is a serious threat to the region, Sullivan said.

Biden has raised the issue repeatedly in his calls with Xi up to this point, but Sullivan underscored the US view that China plays a critical role – and one that should be considered within its self-interest.

“If North Korea continues to go down this road, it will mean an increased American military and security presence in the region,” Sullivan said. “And so (China) has an interest in playing a constructive role in curbing North Korea’s worst tendencies. It is of course up to them to decide whether they choose to do that or not.”

Sullivan said Biden will detail his position on the matter, “which is that North Korea represents a threat not only to the United States, not only to (South Korea) and Japan, but to peace and stability across the entire region.”

Sullivan suggested that the meeting would focus on a better understanding of positions on a series of critical issues, but it is unlikely to lead to any major developments or dramatic changes in the relationship.

Instead, “it’s about the leaders coming to a better understanding and then tasking their teams” to continue working through those issues, Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden travel to Cambodia.

The meeting, which is to be held on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, was the result of “several weeks of intense discussions” between the two sides, Sullivan said, and Biden sees it as the start of a series of commitments between the leaders and u teams.


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