WASHINGTON: U.S. President Joe Biden should give Southeast Asian leaders more personal time during a summit in Washington next week if his administration is serious about elevating U.S. ties with the region, where China holds significant sway, a senior Cambodian official told Reuters on Friday.
No individual meetings were currently planned between the region’s leaders and Biden when the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meets with Biden as a bloc for talks on May 12 and 13, said Kao Kim Hourn, a minister and close adviser to Cambodia’s long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Cambodia holds the rotating ASEAN chair and up to eight leaders, including Hun Sen, are expected to attend the Washington summit. Myanmar’s leader has been excluded over a coup there last year and the Philippines will be in a transition period after an election.
Kao Kim Hourn told Reuters in an interview that ASEAN leaders “should be treated with respect and equality” and given the chance to spend “useful time” with Biden.
“As a big country, a host country, the United States should be more generous to the guests, the leaders who are traveling to Washington, particularly as (Biden) is going to be talking about elevating the strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership,” he said, referring a proposed step in the level of engagement between Washington and the bloc.
Kao Kim Hourn said he believed it was normal practice for the ASEAN chair to meet with the leader of the host country, “whether formally or informally, to have some sort of dialogue.”
Biden to host Southeast Asian leaders in Washington in late March
However, he had been told by the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, that there was no scheduled bilateral meeting he was aware of as the summit would be long already and because Biden was “busy.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It will be the first ASEAN leaders summit hosted in Washington, and a first White House visit for Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985 and has faced frequent criticism from Washington for suppressing dissent and jailing political opponents.
Kao Kim Hourn said Cambodia, which has close economic ties to China and depends on it for loans to fuel its development, would not “choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, and that U.S. investment in his country was growing.