Biden heads to G20, sends Harris to ASEAN, East Asia summits

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022. [AP Photo]

President Joe Biden will attend the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, but is skipping the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, sending Vice President Kamala Harris instead, the White House announced Tuesday.

In a testament to the importance Biden places on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, Biden will be in India September 7-10, arriving two days ahead of the annual gathering of the leaders of the world's 20 largest economies. The heads of state and governments are set to begin their meetings on September 9 and 10.  They are to discuss global issues including clean energy transition, mitigating the economic and social impacts of the war in Ukraine, and increasing the capacity of multilateral development banks.

While in New Delhi, Biden will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the G20 as the premier forum for economic cooperation, including by hosting it in 2026, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.

The U.S.-ASEAN Summit caps high-level official meetings between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated in last month. The East Asia Summit is a regional forum held annually by ASEAN. Its partners include the U.S., China and Russia.

China's influence

Sullivan pushed back against criticism that by not attending the meetings in person, Biden plays into the perception that the U.S. is ceding influence in the region to China. That is the same criticism aimed at the president in May when domestic negotiations on the debt ceiling forced him to cancel what would have been the first visit by an American president to Papua New Guinea.

"This is going to be a constant tug and pull," Sullivan said to VOA during Tuesday's briefing. He outlined Biden's engagements with regional leaders as evidence of U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific, including hosting a trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan last week, attending the G7 and the Quad Leaders' Summit in Hiroshima in May, and hosting the March AUKUS summit with leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom.

"He attended both the first East Asia Summit virtually and the East Asia Summit last year in person," Sullivan said. "He has sent his vice president to Southeast Asia twice, and this will be her third trip there making a substantial investment in ASEAN as an institution and in ASEAN centrality," he added, referring to the group's desire to be the main platform for the region's engagement with external powers.

The administration has indeed bolstered ties with key players in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and India. All of them have been rewarded with face-to-face diplomacy with Biden — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Indian Prime Minister Modi have all been on White House visits earlier this year. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is scheduled for a state visit in October.

"These countries all have one thing in common: They are balancing more openly against China," said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Biden skipping the East Asia and ASEAN summits suggests to the region that Washington is treating countries as falling into two tiers: those working with the U.S. to push back against China and those that prefer more autonomy, Cooper told VOA.

"The latter group will see this diplomatic move as suggesting that they are second-tier players from an American perspective," he said. "Putting Indonesia in that situation is a particularly strange decision, given that it is such a large and pivotal regional player."

Biden may be aiming to add another country into the first tier — Vietnam. He is reportedly working on a deal to elevate the country with a strategic partnership that could mean increased military cooperation and U.S. weapons supplies.

The White House has not officially announced a Hanoi stop, but earlier this month, Biden said he will be visiting Vietnam shortly.

'Not a great look'

Skipping summits with Southeast Asian leaders is "not a great look," said Gregory Polling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"But I think people can overstate the damage here," Polling told VOA. "I also don't think that Vice President Harris' attendance is a snub any more than the fact that [President] Xi Jinping won't be there is a snub."

Beijing usually sends its premier in place of Xi Jinping to the China-ASEAN and East Asia Summits.

Biden attended the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Phnom Penh last November before attending the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. From Bali, he flew home for a family wedding instead of attending the 2022 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting in Bangkok, sending Harris in his place.

Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam in 2021. On the heels of her 2022 Bangkok trip, she made an unprecedented stop at Palawan Island in the Philippines that was seen as a rebuke to China. The tiny fishing community borders the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the center of a protracted dispute between China and nearby countries including the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Sullivan did not respond to questions about whether Harris is set to make a similar gesture during her visit to the region next week.