WASHINGTON — President Biden began hosting leaders of Southeast Asian countries at the White House on Thursday for a two-day visit, with a message of solidarity — and with the aim of providing a bulwark against Chinese influence in the region — even if a major part of his government remains focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The summit, which concludes on Friday, is set 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 primary goals: to form a united front against China, which is increasingly losing its economic and military might. showing around the world.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to make China a central focus of his foreign policy. Instead, a senior government official this week admitted to reporters that the war in Europe had made daily demands that had cost the president and his team the time and energy.
But the official, who requested 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 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 United States’ investments include $40 million for clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. A senior White House official said the administration estimated the money would be used to raise or fund as much as $2 billion towards the construction of the projects.
The United States has also committed to invest $60 million to deploy additional maritime resources – led by the Coast Guard – in the region, and to conduct training and other activities in partnership with other countries aimed at enforcing maritime laws.
And the government 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 travel to Japan and South Korea from May 20-24, a trip that will largely be dominated by China. White House officials have not provided details about the trip, but the president is expected to meet with fellow leaders from the other so-called Quad countries: Australia, India and Japan.
On Thursday, leaders of ASEAN nations met with President Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers before meeting at a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Gina Raimondo, the trade secretary, and executives of US industries.
Mr. Biden welcomed leaders to the White House on Thursday evening in a brief ceremony on the South Lawn. The group posed for a photo before walking into 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 later in the day with Mr. Biden at the White House. According to the government official, the group will discuss trade opportunities; transit through disputed waterways, including the South China Sea; and other topics.
One of those topics is likely to be Myanmar, an ASEAN member, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was ousted as the country’s civilian leader last year when the military staged a coup. The government official said the United States and countries in the region were focused on the situation and frustrated as a result.
A US national security official said the United States and the other countries agreed to leave a seat empty for Myanmar during the summit as a way of showing their disapproval of the 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 meeting is also intended as an opportunity for Ms. Harris to demonstrate her focus on the region. She led a US delegation to Asia last summer and used a speech in Singapore to denounce China’s “illegitimate claims” over the South China Sea, which she says “undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.” .
The government official said Ms Harris planned to use Friday’s meeting with Asian leaders to focus on climate action, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.