President Joe Biden is hosting leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as his administration makes an extended effort to demonstrate that the United States hasn't lost focus on the Pacific even while dealing with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Biden will begin his talks over dinner Thursday evening with leaders from the eight ASEAN nations attending the two-day summit. It will be the group's first meeting at the White House. Leaders will take part in more formal talks at the State Department on Friday.
The ASEAN nations include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Leaders from the other two ASEAN members, Myanmar and the Philippines, are not expected to attend the summit.
The special summit in Washington comes before Biden departs next week for a whirlwind visit to South Korea and Japan — his first visit to Asia as president — for talks with those two countries' leaders. He'll also meet during the trip with leaders from the Indo-Pacific strategic alliance with the U.S. known as the Quad: Australia, India and Japan.
Biden has sought to put greater focus on the Quad and improving relations with Pacific nations in the early going of his presidency as he sees a rising China as the most threatening economic and national security adversary to the United States.
Biden, who vowed to make the Pacific a greater focal point of U.S. policy, has seen his attempt at an “Asia pivot” complicated by the most serious fighting in Europe since World War II, which has consumed much of his foreign policy bandwidth in recent months.
A top White House Asia policy adviser said the administration remains committed to stepping up relations with southeast Asian nations to address climate, economic and education initiatives.
“There has been a sense that in previous administrations that we had set off with a determined pace to focus on East Asia or in the Indo-Pacific and then find ourselves with other pressing challenges that perhaps draws (us) away a little bit,” Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the White House National Security Council, said at an event on Wednesday hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace. “I think there is a deep sense that that can't happen again.”
Outgoing Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is skipping the summit. The bloc has barred Myanmar — it has been gripped by crisis since the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 — from sending all but nongovernmental leaders for the meetings.
The Biden administration condemned the military coup that led to the ouster of Suu Kyi. She was convicted by a military court last month of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison in the first of several corruption cases against her. Suu Kyi has denied the charges.
Biden is also expected to address the situation in Myanmar with ASEAN leaders, as well as discuss China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Campbell said the administration expects the private talks will be “direct, polite, but maybe a little bit uncomfortable at times” as the U.S. and ASEAN members are not on the same page on all issues.
Biden has called for Russia to be disinvited from November's scheduled Group of 20 summit because of its invasion of Ukraine. ASEAN member Indonesia, which holds the presidency of the Group of 20 this year, has resisted the calls to pull Moscow's invitation.
At a virtual summit with ASEAN leaders last year, Biden said Washington would look to start talks with Pacific nations about developing a regional economic framework.
Campbell said that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework would be under discussion during this year's summit, though it was unclear how substantive the talks would be.
Japan's Washington ambassador, Tomita Koji, said at another forum in Washington earlier this week that the framework could be launched during Biden's upcoming visit to Japan.