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In Cambodia, Biden seeks to counter China's influence and Putin's war

The U.S. president has arrived in Southeast Asia, where he will pledge support for allies at the ASEAN summit and hold an in-person meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
President Joe Biden speaks during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit
President Joe Biden speaks during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday.Vincent Thian / AP

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — President Joe Biden on Saturday began a weeklong series of meetings with foreign counterparts during which he will cast the U.S. as a solid and reliable friend of Asian leaders who are unnerved by North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s influence in the region.

In brief remarks at the start of a conference of Southeast Asian nations, Biden made clear that he also wants to use the summit to rally regional allies and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war with Ukraine.

“Together we will tackle the biggest issues of our time, from climate to health security, defend against the significant threats to rule-based order and to threats to the rule of law,” Biden said at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. 

“We will also discuss Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine and our efforts to address the war’s global impacts, including in Southeast Asia,” the president added. 

After arriving in Cambodia, he met privately with the country’s prime minister, Hun Sen, and thanked him for the nation’s decision to co-sponsor United Nations resolutions in support of Ukraine. Biden told the prime minister that he appreciated his “clear condemnation” of Russia’s invasion. 

On Sunday, Biden will meet jointly with two valued allies, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. They are expected to discuss the nuclear threat from North Korea, whose repeated missile tests have sent residents in both countries scurrying to bomb shelters for safety. 

Biden will then fly to Bali, Indonesia, for a summit of the Group of 20, made up of 19 nations and the European Union, which together account for around 80 percent of the global economy. Russia is a G-20 member, but Putin has opted to skip the meeting.

The centerpiece of Biden’s trip is a sit-down on Monday in Bali with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office. As was the case with previous presidents, Biden would like China to play a larger role in curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Briefing reporters on Air Force One as the president flew to Cambodia from a climate change conference in Egypt, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Biden is “going to tell President Xi his perspective, which is that North Korea represents a threat not just to the United States, not just to [South Korea] and Japan, but to peace and stability across the entire region.”

Sullivan added, “And if North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region. And so [China] has an interest in playing a constructive role in restraining North Korea’s worst tendencies.”

Biden and Xi are both approaching the meeting from positions of relative strength. At a ruling Communist Party meeting last month, Xi gained for himself a historic third term and installed party loyalists in powerful positions.

As for Biden, with election officials still in the process of tallying votes, it’s still unclear whether Republicans or Democrats will control Congress next year. His party, however, has defied historical trends by averting the heavy losses that sitting presidents typically suffer in their first midterm election cycle.

Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that between Russia and North Korea, China “has two friends acting like absolute rogues,” adding that Beijing is “not managing either well.”

The fatigue that comes from flying halfway around the world may be catching up to Biden. In his remarks at the ASEAN summit, he apparently mistook the host country, Cambodia, for a South American nation with the same first letter and number of syllables. 

He expressed thanks for Colombia’s leadership.