U.S. President Joe Biden is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this weekend for meetings with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the region faces a violent crisis in Myanmar, ongoing threats from North Korea, and the intensifying rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
In opening remarks of the US-ASEAN summit Saturday, Biden reaffirmed U.S. commitment to “ASEAN Centrality” – the principle that regional engagements and processes are driven by the 10-country bloc instead of great power rivalry.
“ASEAN is the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” Biden said. “And we continue to strengthen our commitment to work in lockstep with an empowered, unified ASEAN.”
The South China Sea – where several ASEAN member states have competing claims with each other and with Beijing – and the political crisis in Myanmar will be points of discussion, Biden said.
“I'll also discuss Russia's brutal war against Ukraine and our efforts to address the wars global impact, including in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Biden – Hun Sen
Biden appeared to misspeak as he thanked “the prime minister of Colombia” for his leadership in ASEAN, referring to Cambodia’s authoritarian leader Hun Sen. At the start of the summit, the president held a bilateral meeting with the region’s longest-ruling leader who has been in office since 1985.
Activists have urged Biden to hold Hun Sen accountable for the country’s democratic decline.
Biden pressed Hun Sen to reopen civic and political space ahead of the 2023 elections and called for the release of activists detained on politically motivated charges, including U.S.-Cambodian dual citizen Seng Theary, according to a readout of the bilateral meeting provided by the White House.
With Phnom Penh firmly in Beijing’s embrace, however, there may not be much that Biden can do.
“Whenever there’s pressure from the Western country, especially from the U.S., China will be at the back of the Cambodian government providing support,” said Bunna Vannm president of The Thinker Cambodia think tank. “When the U.S. has put a sanction to the Cambodian government, China will provide the economic support to the Cambodian government.”
During his meeting with Hun Sen earlier this week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged $27 million in development aid for Cambodia.
The U.S. is also concerned that Cambodia is secretly allowing Chinese warships to dock at its Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand.
“The President raised concerns regarding the situation at Ream Naval Base and underscored the importance of full transparency about activities by the PRC military at Ream Naval Base,” the White House said in its statement.
Earlier this year, Beijing provided funds to revamp the base, heightening fears among some ASEAN members concerned about Chinese expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea.
Biden ended his first day in Cambodia at a gala dinner with summit leaders. He will continue meetings in the East Asia Summit on Sunday before heading to Bali, Indonesia, for the G-20 meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies.
The East Asia Summit is a grouping of ASEAN and its dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States.
ASEAN warns Myanmar
ASEAN leaders Friday issued a warning to Myanmar’s junta to make measurable progress on the five-point consensus peace plan adopted in April 2021 or continue being barred from the bloc's meetings.
In October, amid escalating violence in Myanmar since the military coup against the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, ASEAN agreed to exclude the head of its military junta, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, from this month’s gathering of the 10-nation bloc. The country would only be permitted to send “non-political representatives.”
According to the United Nations, more than 13 million people in Myanmar are going hungry and 1.3 million have been displaced with the military continuing its operations with disproportionate force, including bombings, the burning of homes and killing of civilians.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, who will assume ASEAN’s chair next year, said his country is “deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening.”
“We must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define ASEAN,” he said. He called for expanding the participation of only non-political representatives beyond the bloc’s biannual summits and foreign ministers’ meeting.
The Myanmar crisis is the “biggest sensitive issue” facing ASEAN and cannot be detached from global geopolitical tensions, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, Dinna Prapto Raharja, founder of the Jakarta-based think tank Synergy Policies told VOA.
Naypyidaw has further aligned itself with Russia following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while Moscow has provided Myanmar’s junta with weapons and backed it diplomatically. At the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China have shielded Myanmar from action from the world body.
In October, Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the same Russian weapons being used in Ukraine were also killing people in Myanmar. He called for an international coalition to target Myanmar's military junta with sanctions and an arms embargo.
In Phnom Penh, Biden will meet with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to discuss broader security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, specifically threats posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One on the way to Phnom Penh.
North Korea recently deployed military flights near its border with South Korea and test-fired a barrage of missiles, saying they were a “corresponding military operation” aimed at conducting simulated strikes in response to large-scale South Korea and U.S. allied air drills.
Sullivan said that Biden will raise the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their Monday meeting scheduled on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, and convey that Pyongyang represents a threat across the entire region beyond U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
“And if North Korea keeps going down this road, it will simply mean further enhanced American military and security presence in the region,” he said. “And so, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has an interest in playing a constructive role in restraining North Korea's worst tendencies. Whether they choose to do so or not is of course up to them.”