Biden Hosts Southeast Asian Leaders as He Tries to Return Focus to China

Biden Hosts Southeast Asian Leaders as He Tries to Return Focus to China

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday began hosting the leaders of Southeast Asian nations at the White House for a two-day visit, delivering a message of solidarity — and aiming to provide 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 concludes on Friday, is intended to cover an array of topics, including trade, human rights and climate change. But it is also part of an effort by Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team to highlight one of the president’s primary goals: assembling a united front against China as it increasingly demonstrates its economic and military might around the world.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden 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 had created daily demands that had consumed the time and energy of the president and his team.

But the official, who requested anonymity to discuss preparations for the summit, said Mr. Biden remained concerned about, and focused on, the need to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific. The gathering 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 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.

The investments by the United States include $40 million for clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. A senior White House official said the administration estimated that the money would be used to help raise or finance as much as $2 billion for the 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 perform training and other activities in coordination with other countries aimed at enforcing 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 is also traveling to Japan and South Korea from May 20 to May 24, a trip that will focus in large part on China. White House officials have not provided details about the trip, but the president is expected to meet with fellow leaders of the other so-called Quad countries: Australia, India and Japan.

On Thursday, the leaders from the ASEAN countries met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers before gathering at a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, and executives 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 picture before walking into the White House for dinner.

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

One of those topics is likely to be Myanmar, one of the group’s members, 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.

An American national security official said the United States and the other nations agreed to leave a chair empty during the summit for Myanmar as a way of registering their disapproval of the actions by its military. The official also said the United States supported the decision by ASEAN to prevent a military representative from Myanmar from attending the summit.

The gathering 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, using a speech in Singapore to denounce China’s “unlawful claims” over the South China Sea, which she said “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.”

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

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