Politics

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

WASHINGTON — President Biden plans to host the leaders of Southeast Asian nations at the White House on Thursday and Friday, 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 two-day summit will 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 on Wednesday 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 10 world leaders in Washington for two days is an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment, the official said.

Mr. Biden 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 he is expected to meet with fellow leaders of the other so-called Quad countries: India, Japan and Australia.

On Thursday, the leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers before gathering at a Washington hotel to discuss business opportunities with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and executives from American industries. Mr. Biden plans to host the leaders for what the administration official said would be an intimate dinner at the White House on Thursday evening.

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 them 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.

He said the planners of Thursday’s summit were considering placing an empty chair in the room where the leaders were meeting to register their disapproval.

The summit will also 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 more directly on climate action, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.

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