On whirlwind trip across the globe, Biden addresses climate change, heads to Asia to meet with heads of state

PHNOM PENH — Four meals, three time zones and two nights on a plane. 

It’s a grueling schedule for any U.S. president whenever they travel to Asia. President Joe Biden, who turns 80 this month, arrived in Cambodia on Saturday after spending nearly twenty-four hours traveling from Washington to Egypt and Phnom Penh.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Biden called Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek on the first of two long-haul flights that brought him to Asia.

He also spent time checking in with White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"He's been meeting with his team talking about the next couple of days," she told reporters traveling with Biden on Air Force One.

Children of US embassy staff greet US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Cambodia's Phnom Penh International Airport on November 12, 2022, as he travels to attend the 2022 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

The latest:

  • Biden’s (very long) day: The president left Washington, D.C. late Thursday evening and delivered remarks on Friday touting U.S. investments in clean energy at the COP27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh before he landed in Phnom Penh.
  • First order of business: He sat down with the country’s strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The leaders discussed human rights and Biden pushed for the release of political prisoners, the White House said.
  • What’s on the agenda: A bilateral meeting with Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, a photo with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders and a gala dinner.
  • Where Biden's at now: Taking some downtime after two nearly back-to-back flights that lasted between nine and 10 hours each and a busy evening of events.
  • Gourmet experience: Air Force One passengers were served “honey chicken biscuits," a brunch of “spinach & artichoke egg soufflé” and a "harvest chicken salad” with apples, pecans, cranberries and crumbled goat cheese for dinner. For breakfast, the menu was a “blueberry maple chia parfait” and a “bacon, egg & cheese bagel."
  • Country mistakes: In remarks at the opening session of ASEAN, Biden referred mistakenly referred to Colombia instead of Cambodia. And it wasn't the first time. He called his host nation Colombia as he left the White House on Thursday evening.

What's about to happen

Biden is keeping America’s friends close and its rivals closer during his trip to Asia. 

The president will meet with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on Sunday in Cambodia and has plans to hold bilateral meetings later in the week with the new prime ministers of the UK and Italy.

But first, he met with el-Sisi in Egypt, and the next day in Cambodia, Biden met with Hun Sen. The U.S. has targeted people close to the Cambodia president with sanctions.

U.S. President Joe Biden smiles as he arrives on Air Force One for the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Sullivan said Biden is meeting with the hosts of each summit he is attending and pointed out that when Biden travels to Bali for the G-20 on his third and final stop, he will meet with Indonesia's democratically-elected President Joko Widodo.

"So he will have plenty of opportunity to engage deeply with core democratic allies," Biden's national security adviser said.

"But he's going to engage across the board in service of America's interests and to advance America's strategic position and our values. And that's what guides his decision on every leader he chooses to engage with."

Top takeaways

  • "I think that's just the reality of being President of the United States – that you have to both work with governments like China and Egypt on issues like climate change, but also push for those countries to be more free," said Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz. " I think President Biden has to do both."
  • Biden greeted Cambodia's Hun Sen with an enthusiastic: “Prime minister!”
  • He indicated they would discuss Russia's war on Ukraine and the worsening situation in Myanmar, where the military is executing pro-democracy activists.
  • Myanmar's junta leader was not invited to participate in the gathering. A single chair remained open at the leaders summit. It had a placard with the country's name on it.
  • "The President will use this opportunity to discuss how we can coordinate more closely to continue to impose costs and raise pressure on the junta in Naypyidaw as they continue to take steps that repress and oppress their citizenry," Sullivan said.
  • Sullivan told reporters Biden plans to speak with Japan and South Korea about North Korea's ballistic missile program when he meets with the nations on Sunday.
US President Joe Biden (back C) receives a hug while greeting local US embassy staff upon arrival in Cambodia's Phnom Penh International Airport on November 12, 2022, as he travels to attend the 2022 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

Why it matters

Biden is trying to win over countries in South East Asia that felt neglected under his predecessors and may be inclined to remain neutral or side with China if a regional conflict breaks out.

"It is certainly the case that the countries of the region do not want conflict or confrontation between the major powers," Sullivan told reporters on the flight to Cambodia. "But they also very much want U.S. presence – forward-deployed presence in the region."

Sullivan said the U.S. is "an important anchor of peace and stability" in the region and works to ensure "no country can engage in the kind of sustained intimidation and coercion that would be fundamentally adverse to the nations of ASEAN and other countries."

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