President Joe Biden on Wednesday plunged back into East Asian diplomacy after a four-year U.S. presidential absence, by meeting virtually with Asia Pacific power players to discuss shared concerns like China’s growing ambitions, growing North Korean belligerence and the aftermath of a coup in Myanmar.
The annual East Asia Summit convenes 18 countries — including the United States, Australia, China, Russia and the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This is the first time in four years that the U.S. president has participated, as former President Donald Trump sent high-level officials in his place.
This summit is held after the annual ASEAN leaders' meetings, which this year was also held virtually, and which Biden also attended.
Attendance at this event used to speak volumes, said Julian Ku, a Hofstra University professor who focuses on international disputes and law.
"Usually the East Asia Summit is a big deal in terms of analyzing who shows up and the United States has been long accused of just not paying enough attention to it, compared to say, Europe and the Middle East,” he told VOA. “It's a little different this year, because it's virtual. So it's not that hard to show up. .. this has always been a symbol or a signal for how engaged the United States is in East Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia.”
On Tuesday, Biden met virtually with nine of the 10 ASEAN leaders at their annual meeting, at which he announced plans to provide up to $102 million to expand U.S. strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
One head of state was not allowed to attend, even virtually: the junta military leader of Myanmar, who seized power in February.
Ku said Myanmar, which was discussed during the ASEAN summit, is likely to come up again among leaders with interests in East Asia. But they may not be able to bite off the meatier issues, which include China’s increased military activities in the South China Sea, Beijing’s stance towards Taiwan and regional policies around issues like weapons testing.
“Usually the hard issues like China or what China's doing here and there — that’s not something they can handle at the East Asia Summit,” Ku said. “Something like Myanmar, which is a somewhat smaller issue, is at least something they can at least try to make some progress on.”
U.S.-Chinese diplomacy is further complicated by the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping has effectively withdrawn from all international events, and has not set foot out of his country for more than 630 days. And in recent months, Xi has also been scarce in even virtual events, sending other officials to major diplomatic dial-ins such as a September meetup with G-20 leaders to discuss the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, the White House said the two leaders would meet virtually, but when asked this week when that might be, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave no date, saying only that it would be “before the end of the year.”
“All I can say is, from the U.S. president’s perspective, President Biden does believe it’s important that he have the opportunity to have a face-to-face engagement with Xi Jinping,” Sullivan told reporters this week. “And if it’s not possible in person because of Xi’s travel constraints, doing it by virtual meeting is the next best thing. That’s what we’re intending to do. And we’re intending to do that because, in an era of intense competition between the U.S. and China, intense diplomacy at the highest levels, leader-level diplomacy is vital to effectively managing this relationship.”
Normally, the leaders of China and the U.S. would cross paths at any number of major annual events, such as the upcoming gathering of the world’s 20 wealthiest nations, or the United Nations’ climate conference. Biden will travel to both of those events starting Thursday; Xi does not plan to attend either one.