Biden hosts leaders from Southeast Asia as he seeks to shift focus back to China

Biden hosts leaders from Southeast Asia as he seeks to shift focus back to China

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday began hosting leaders of Southeast Asian nations for a two-day visit to the White House, delivering a message of solidarity — and aiming to offer a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region — even so much like his government remains focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The summit, which ends on Friday, is set to cover a range of issues including trade, human rights and climate change. But it’s also part of an effort by Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team to highlight one of the president’s key goals: forming a united front against China as it increasingly demonstrates its economic and military might around the world.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden pledged to make China a key focus of his foreign policy. Instead, a senior government official conceded to reporters this week that the war in Europe has created daily demands that have sapped the time and energy of the president and his team.

But the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss preparations for the summit, said Mr Biden remained concerned and focused on the need to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific. The meeting of Mr. Biden and 10 other world leaders in Washington is an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment, the official said.

On Thursday evening, the White House announced about $150 million in new investments in the region as part of a series of deals between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

United States investment includes $40 million in clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. A senior White House official said the administration estimated the money would be used to raise or fund up to $2 billion to build the projects.

The United States also pledged to invest $60 million to deploy additional maritime resources — led by the Coast Guard — to the region and conduct training and other maritime law enforcement activities in coordination with other countries.

And the government said it will spend $15 million to expand health surveillance programs in Southeast Asia to better detect Covid-19 and other airborne diseases in the region.

The President also travels to Japan and South Korea May 20-24, a trip much of which will focus on China. White House officials have not released details about the trip, but the president is expected to meet with other leaders from the other so-called quad countries: Australia, India and Japan.

On Thursday, ASEAN leaders met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers before gathering at a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce, and American industry leaders.

Mr. Biden welcomed leaders in a brief ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on Thursday night. The group posed for a photo before heading to the White House for dinner.

On Friday, Asian leaders will meet with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in the morning and with Mr. Biden later in the day at the White House. According to the administrator, the group will discuss trade opportunities; Transit through disputed waterways, including the South China Sea; and other subjects.

One such issue may be Myanmar, one of the members of the group where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted as the country’s civilian leader in a military coup last year. The government official said the United States and countries in the region are focused on and frustrated by the situation.

A US national security official said the United States and other nations had agreed to reserve a chair during the summit for Myanmar to express their disapproval of its military’s actions. The official also said the United States supports ASEAN’s decision to block a military official from Myanmar from attending the summit.

The meeting is also intended to be an opportunity for Ms. Harris to demonstrate her focus on the region. She led an American delegation to Asia last summer, and in a speech in Singapore condemned China’s “unlawful claims” to the South China Sea, which she said “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

The government official said Ms Harris plans to use Friday’s meeting with Asian leaders to focus on climate action, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.

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