A senior Cambodian official says US President Biden should spend more time with Southeast Asian (Asean) leaders during a summit in Washington if he is serious about elevating US ties with the region because China holds significant sway.
Kao Kim Hourn, a minister and close advisor to Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, said no individual meetings are planned between the Asean leaders and Biden when they meet with him in May.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who holds the rotating Asean chairmanship, is expected to attend the summit along with eight other leaders. Myanmar’s leader has been expelled following a coup there last year, and the Philippines will be in transition after an election.
According to Kao Kim Hourn, Asean leaders “should be treated with respect and equality” and allowed to spend “useful time” with Biden.
“President Biden ought to be more generous to his Asean guests visiting Washington, especially as Biden will be speaking about elevating the strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership,” he said, referring to a proposed increase in engagement between Washington and Asean.
He said it is normal practice for the chair of Asean to meet with the leader of the host country “whether formally or informally, to have some sort of dialogue.”
The US ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, however, had informed him that no bilateral meeting was scheduled due to the long summit and Biden’s busy schedule.
45 years of US-Asean relations
In response to a request for comment, the White House did not respond immediately. However, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Biden will host a dinner at the White House for Asean leaders. He will also participate in a summit with them at the State Department.
In her remarks, she noted that the summit would honor the contributions of Asean in meeting the region’s most pressing challenges and commemorate 45 years of US-Asean relations.
Washington will host the first Asean leaders’ summit, and Hun Sen will visit the White House for the first time. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, has faced criticism from the Trump administration due to his suppression of dissent and incarceration of opponents.
In his remarks, Kao Kim Hourn said Cambodia, which has close economic ties to China, wouldn’t “pick sides” between Washington and Beijing, and that US investments in Cambodia were growing.
Asean also works with both the United States and China under its inclusiveness principle.
Analysts and diplomats say Asean nations are eager to strengthen ties with the US but have been frustrated with the US’s failure to provide plans for economic engagement.
Asean is divided over Ukraine – Russia conflict
Kao Kim Hourn said the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is a “work in progress” and the Biden administration is focused on domestic issues and the Ukraine crisis.
In terms of IPEF, he said, “there are a lot of details we don’t know yet. We acknowledge the fact that the United States has a number of competing priorities in the global arena.”
In addition to discussing Asean’s competing claims in the South China Sea, Kao Kim Hourn said environmental issues would also be on Biden’s agenda.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden is likely to press Asean to do more to support his diplomatic and economic isolation efforts.
According to Kao Kim Hourn, Asean members have different perspectives on the conflict, so any collective Asean position must be consensus-driven.