PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – US President Joe Biden offered on Saturday America’s full commitment to the nations of Southeast Asia, pledging at a summit in Cambodia to help counter China’s growing dominance in the region – without mentioning a second superpower by name.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was absent from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh. But Xi hovered over the mileage just two days before he and Biden are due to have an anticipated first face-to-face meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

Biden’s White House declared the nation of Xi its greatest economic and military rival of the next century, and although the president never called on China directly, his message was directly aimed at Beijing.

“Together, we will tackle the greatest issues of our time, from climate to health security, to defend ourselves against serious threats to a rules-based order and from threats to the rule of law,” Biden said. “We will build an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, stable and prosperous, resilient and safe.”

The United States has long ridiculed China’s violations of the rules-based international order – from trade to shipping to intellectual property – and Biden tried to emphasize its administration’s solidarity with a region that Americans too often overlooked.

His work in Phnom Penh was to set the framework for a meeting with Xi – his first face-to-face meeting with a Chinese leader since taking office – to be held on Monday at the top of the world’s richest economies the G20 this year takes place in Bali, Indonesia. .

Much of Biden’s ASEAN program was to demonstrate resistance to Beijing.

It was to push for more freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where the US said nations can fly and sail where international law allows. The United States has stated that China’s resistance to this freedom is a challenge to a rules-based world order.

Moreover, in an attempt to crack down on China’s unregulated fishing, the United States began efforts to use radio frequencies from commercial satellites to better track so-called dark shipping and illegal fishing. Biden has also committed to assisting an infrastructure initiative in the area – to counter China’s Belt and Road program – and to lead a regional response to the ongoing violence in Burma.

But this meeting of Xi will be the highlight of Biden’s week overseas, right after his party showed surprising strength in the US mid-term election, which encouraged the president as he traveled abroad. Biden will circumnavigate the globe for the first time at a major climate conference in Egypt, before arriving in Cambodia for two weekend summits before heading to Indonesia.

Over the past two decades, Asian nations have been skeptical about America’s involvement in the region. Former President Barack Obama took office with a wide-ranging declaration that the United States would “move to Asia,” but his administration was sidelined by increasing involvement in Middle East wars.

Donald Trump pursued a more domestic foreign policy and spent most of his time in office trying to negotiate a better trade deal with China while praising Xi’s authoritarian instincts. Declaring China the greatest rival of the United States, Biden again tried to focus on Beijing, but had to spend an extraordinary amount of resources to help Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion.

But this week is intended to refocus America’s attention on Asia – just as China, taking advantage of the vacuum left by America’s inattention, continues to rule the region.

Biden stated that the ten countries that make up ASEAN are “at the heart of my administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and that his tenure – which included hosting leaders in Washington earlier this year – marks “a new era of our collaboration.” However, he incorrectly referred to the host country as “Colombia”, thanking him at the beginning of his speech.

“We will build a better future, a better future that we all say we want to see,” said Biden.

Biden was only the second US president to set foot in Cambodia after Obama’s visit in 2012. And like Obama on Saturday, the president made no public remarks about Cambodia’s dark history or the role of the United States in the nation’s tormented past.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon authorized a covert carpet raid campaign in Cambodia to cut off North Vietnam towards South Vietnam. The United States also backed the coup that partially led to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a bloodthirsty guerrilla group that orchestrated the genocide that killed more than 1.5 million people between 1975 and 1979.

One of the regime’s infamous Killers, where nearly 20,000 Cambodians were executed and thrown into mass graves, is just a few miles from downtown Phnom Penh. There, the monument with thousands of skulls is a living reminder of the atrocities committed just a few generations ago. White House advisers said Biden had no plans to visit.

As is usual, at the beginning of the summit, Biden met with the leader of the host country. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, ruled Cambodia for decades with almost no opposition tolerated. Opposition leaders were imprisoned and killed, and his administration was charged with widespread corruption, according to human rights organizations.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said Biden would “commit worldwide to serving America’s interests and promoting America’s strategic position and our values.” He said that Biden was dating Hun Sen because he was the leader of the host country.

US officials said Biden called on Cambodia’s leader to become more democratic and “reopen civic and political space” ahead of the country’s next elections.

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