Biden welcomes Southeast Asian leaders as he tries to focus on China

WASHINGTON — President Biden began welcoming leaders of Southeast Asian countries to the White House on Thursday for a two-day visit, delivering a message of solidarity — and aimed at providing a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region – even as much of his administration remains focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The summit, which ends on Friday, is intended to cover a range of topics, 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 main goals: to assemble a united front against China as it increasingly demonstrates its economic and military power in the world.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden has promised to make China a central focus of his foreign policy. Instead, a senior administration official acknowledged to reporters this week that the war in Europe has created daily demands that have consumed the time and energy of the president and his team.

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

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

US investments include $40 million for clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. A senior White House official said the administration estimates the money will be used to help raise or fund up to $2 billion for construction of the projects.

The United States also pledged to invest $60 million to deploy additional maritime assets – led by the Coast Guard – to the region, and to conduct training and other activities in coordination with other nations aimed at enforce maritime laws.

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

The president will also visit Japan and South Korea from May 20-24, a trip that will largely focus on China. White House officials did not provide details of the trip, but the president is expected to meet with other leaders from the other so-called Quad countries: Australia, India and Japan.

Leaders of ASEAN countries met with President Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers on Thursday before meeting at a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and leaders from American industries.

Mr. Biden welcomed the leaders to the White House on Thursday evening in a brief ceremony on the South Lawn. The group posed for a photo before entering 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, then with Mr. Biden at the White House later in the day. According to the administration official, the group will discuss business opportunities; transit through disputed waterways, including the South China Sea; and other topics.

One such topic is likely to be ASEAN member Myanmar, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted as the country’s civilian leader last year when the military staged a coup. The administration official said the United States and countries in the region were focused on the situation and frustrated by it.

A US national security official said the United States and other nations agreed to leave an empty chair during the summit for Myanmar to register their disapproval of its military’s actions. The official also said the United States supports ASEAN’s decision to prevent a military representative from Myanmar from attending the summit.

The rally is also meant to be an opportunity for Ms Harris to demonstrate her interest in the area. She led a US delegation to Asia last summer, using a speech in Singapore to denounce China’s “illegal claims” to the South China Sea, which she says “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations”.

The administration 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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