PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — U.S. President Joe Biden offered a full-throated American commitment to the nations of Southeast Asia on Saturday, pledging at a Cambodia summit to help stand against China’s growing dominance in the region — without mentioning the other superpower by name.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wasn’t in the room 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 are set to have their highly anticipated first face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
The Biden White House has declared Xi’s nation its greatest economic and military rival of the next century and while the president never called out China directly, his message was squarely aimed at Beijing.
“Together we will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security to defend against significant threats to rules-based order and to threats against the rule of law,” Biden said. “We’ll build an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and secure.”
The U.S. has long derided China’s violation of the international rules-based order — from trade to shipping to intellectual property — and Biden tried to emphasize his administration’s solidarity with a region American has too often overlooked.
His work in Phnom Penh was meant to set a framework for his meeting with Xi — his first face-to-face with the Chinese leader since taking office — which is to be held Monday at the G20 summit of the world’s richest economies, this year being held in Indonesia on the island of Bali.
Much of Biden’s agenda at ASEAN was to demonstrate resistance to Beijing.
He was to push for better freedom of navigation on the South China Sea, where the U.S. believes the nations can fly and sail wherever international law allows. The U.S. had declared that China’s resistance to that freedom challenges the world’s rules-based order.
Moreover, in an effort to crack down on unregulated fishing by China, the U.S. began an effort to use radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track so-called dark shipping and illegal fishing. Biden also pledged to help the area’s infrastructure initiative — meant as a counter to China’s Belt and Road program — as well as to lead a regional response to the ongoing violence in Myanmar.
But it is the Xi meeting that will be the main event for Biden’s week abroad, which comes right after his party showed surprising strength in the U.S. midterm elections, emboldening the president as he headed overseas. Biden will circumnavigate the globe, having made his first stop at a major climate conference in Egypt before arriving in Cambodia for a pair of weekend summits before going on to Indonesia.
There has been skepticism among Asian states as to American commitment to the region over the last two decades. Former President Barack Obama took office with the much-ballyhooed declaration that the U.S. would “pivot to Asia,” but his administration was sidetracked by growing involvements in Middle Eastern wars.
Donald Trump conducted a more inward-looking foreign policy and spent much of his time in office trying to broker a better trade deal with China, all the while praising Xi’s authoritarian instincts. Declaring China the United States’ biggest rival, Biden again tried to focus on Beijing but has had to devote an extraordinary amount of resources to helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion.
But this week is meant to refocus America on Asia — just as China, taking advantage of the vacuum left by America’s inattention, has continued to wield its power over the region.
Biden declared that the ten nations that make up ASEAN are “the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and that his time in office — which included hosting the leaders in Washington earlier this year — begins “a new era in our cooperation.” He did, though, mistakenly identify the host country as “Colombia” while offering thanks at the beginning of his speech.
“We will build a better future, a better future we all say we want to see,” Biden said.
Biden was only the second U.S. president to set foot in Cambodia, after Obama visited in 2012. And like Obama did then, the president on Saturday made no public remarks about Cambodia’s dark history or the United States’ role in the nation’s tortured past.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon authorized a secret carpet-bombing campaign in Cambodia to cut off North Vietnam’s move toward South Vietnam. The U.S. also backed a coup that led, in part, to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that went on to orchestrate a genocide that resulted in the deaths of more than 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 in mass graves, lies just a few miles outside the center of Phnom Penh. There, a memorial featuring thousands of skulls sits as a vivid reminder of the atrocities committed just a few generations ago. White House aides said that Biden had no scheduled plans to visit.
As is customary, Biden met with the host country’s leader at the start of the summit. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia for decades with next to no tolerance for 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 “engage across the board in service of America’s interests and to advance America’s strategic position and our values.” He said Biden was meeting with Hun Sen because he was the leader of the host country.
U.S. officials said Biden urged the Cambodian leader to make a greater commitment to democracy and “reopen civic and political space” ahead of the country’s next elections.
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