Biden hosts ASEAN as he looks to show Pacific commitment
President Joe Biden is hosting leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as his administration makes an extended effort to demonstrate that the United States has not focus on the Pacific even while dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden will begin his talks over dinner Thursday evening with leaders from the eight ASEAN nations attending the two-day summit. It will be the group’s first meeting at the White House. Leaders will take part in more formal talks at the State Department on Friday.
The ASEAN nations include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Leaders from the other two ASEAN members, Myanmar and the Philippines, are not expected to attend the summit.
The special summit in Washington comes before Biden’s trip next week to South Korea and Japan — his first visit to Asia as president — for talks with those two countries’ leaders. He also will meet during that trip with leaders from the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance with the U.S. known as the Quad: Australia, India and Japan.
Biden has tried to put greater focus on that alliance and improving relations with Pacific nations in the early going of his presidency as he sees a rising China as the most threatening economic and national security adversary to the United States.
Biden, who pledged to make the Pacific a greater focal point of U.S. policy, has seen his attempt at an “Asia pivot” complicated by the most serious fighting in Europe since World War II.
A White House Asia policy adviser said the administration remains committed to stepping up relations with Southeast Asian nations to address climate, economic and education initiatives.
“There has been a sense that in previous administrations that we had set off with a determined pace to focus on East Asia or in the Indo-Pacific and then find ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps draws (us) away a little bit,” Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the White House National Security Council, said Wednesday. “I think there is a deep sense that that can’t happen again.”
The outgoing president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is skipping the ASEAN summit because his country is in a political transition. ASEAN has barred Myanmar — in crisis since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 — from sending all but nongovernmental leaders for ASEAN meetings.
The Biden administration condemned the military coup that led to the ouster of Suu Kyi. She was convicted by a military court last month of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison in the first of several corruption cases against her. Suu Kyi has denied the charges.
Biden is also expected to address the situation in Myanmar with ASEAN leaders, as well as discuss China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Campbell said the administration expects the private talks will be “direct, polite, but maybe a little bit uncomfortable at times” as the U.S. and ASEAN members are not on the same page on all issues. He said the administration wants to see the group “play a more deeply engaged role in the critical diplomacy about next steps” in Myanmar.
Biden has called for Russia to be disinvited from November’s scheduled Group of 20 summit because of its invasion of Ukraine. ASEAN member Indonesia, which holds the presidency of the G-20 this year, has resisted the calls to pull Moscow’s invitation.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presumptive winner of this week’s Philippines presidential election, could test U.S. sway in the region. The son and namesake of the country’s former dictator has said he wants to pursue closer ties with China.
He has received congratulatory calls from both Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. His campaign said that Marcos Jr. also met on on Thursday with Chinese ambassador, Huang Xilian, who conveyed that Beijing wants to bring cooperation between the two country to “new heights.”
At a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders last year, Biden said Washington would look to start talks with Pacific nations about developing a regional economic framework
Japan’s Washington ambassador, Tomita Koji, said earlier this week that the framework could be launched during Biden’s upcoming visit to Japan.