Biden works to shore up friendships with Asian countries on Cambodia trip

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – President Joe Biden sought to win friends and influence Southeast Asian nations as he ratcheted up efforts to isolate Russia and tame China during a weekend visit to Cambodia.

Biden hosted countries in the region at the White House in May and emphasized his administration's desire to build stronger relations in remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual summit.

Past administrations have been criticized for being absent from the gathering that China's Xi Jinping has attended in the past but won't attend this year. He'll be in Bali at the Group of 20 Summit, where he plans to meet Biden, and at APEC, which Vice President Kamala Harris is attending, later in the week.

Xi's absence in Cambodia presented an opportunity for Biden to convince countries that their economies would suffer greatly if China causes supply chain disruptions by invading Taiwan.

President Joe Biden meets with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, on Nov. 13, 2022, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The latest:

  • Where's Biden? He attended the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia on Saturday and Sunday before flying to Bali, Indonesia.
  • Surprise victory: Biden got a late start at the conference Sunday after incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's won her race in Nevada.
  • Who he met: Biden hosted individual meetings with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and a joint meeting with both nations before he departed Phnom Penh. 
  • Unannounced meeting: Biden was also seen talking with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
  • What else did Biden do: He attended a Saturday evening gala hosted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Biden entered the dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
  • Old acquaintances: Biden gave Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong an enthusiastic greeting at ASEAN. Lee was prime minister while Biden was vice president and visited the White House in March.
  • Dinner menu: Courses included meang lau — "savory pork shoulder, tangy tamarind, roasted peanuts and aromatic ginger rolled in fresh tapioca leaves" and wild Mekong lobster —  "stir-fried river lobster, topped with aromatic herbs, served over turmeric-infused sticky rice."
Philippines' President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, US President Joe Biden, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, Laos' Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh and Malaysia's lower house speaker Azhar Azizan Harun pose for pictures during the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on Nov. 12, 2022.

What's about to happen

Biden meets on Monday in Bali with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who is hosting this year's G-20 Summit.

Most of the attention will be on Biden's second meeting of the day, though, with China's Xi prior to the start of the summit. The meeting with the Chinese leader was months in the making; it's the first time the two presidents will have seen each other in person since Biden took office.

Top takeaways

Building better relations with Southeast Asian nations is one of Biden's top national security concerns.

His administration calls the approach "friendshoring." It's intended to help the U.S. form stronger alliances with nations that can help discourage China from taking military action against Taiwan. 

Nearly half of the world's container fleet passes through Taiwan each year. A conflict could lead to shipping delays, trigger shortages in the United States of electronics and appliances, and trigger a global economic crisis.

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to a speech from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during the ASEAN - U.S. summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

What they are saying

  • "The most important thing that the U.S. can do is usually just show up to these things and show face," said Erin Murphy, deputy director and senior fellow with the economics program at CSIS of Biden's appearance a pair of summits in Cambodia.
  • In his meeting with Albanese, Biden hinted at a visit to Australia in 2023.
  • The White House says Biden spoke to leaders about efforts to end Russia's war on Ukraine and maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Straight.
  • "All the ASEAN countries live with a tug of war," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • Countries that were not as close to the U.S. a few years ago, have "become much more interested in strategic and military closeness to the U.S., he said.
  • Biden repeatedly brought up North Korea's illicit missile program.
  • Nuclear deterrence is one area Biden's administration believes the U.S. and China can work together on.

Another regional crisis to watch

A military dictatorship overthrew the Myanmar government last year in a coup. Conditions have rapidly deteriorated, as the military junta in charge tries to stifle dissent. ASEAN leaders have sought to implement a five-point peace plan in Myanmar that the junta agreed to initially but has shown little interest in implementing.

The leaders of the 10 countries that make up ASEAN – minus Myanmar, which also goes by Burma – met Sunday with government officials from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the U.S. to discuss the situation.

Biden was among the leaders who "highlighted the importance of taking further action to increase pressure on the Burmese military regime" to release political prisoners, abide by a peace plan and recommit to democracy, the White House said.

Want to know more?

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Catch up on Biden's trip to Asia: On whirlwind trip across the globe, Biden addresses climate change, heads to Asia to meet with heads of state