WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden will aim to assert America’s global leadership during his upcoming trip to Southeast Asia that will be shadowed by a verdict on his presidency after Tuesday’s elections.
The foreign policy challenges that have helped define Biden’s first two years in office—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increasing influence of China—will be on full display at a pair of summits in the region. Biden is preparing for a potential one-on-one meeting with a newly empowered Xi Jinping, who last month won an custom-shattering third term as China’s Community Party leader.
Biden will also be confronted by global economic challenges at the Group of 20 summit, an annual gathering of leaders from the world’s largest economies. He also will try to assure the nearly dozen countries that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the United States is invested in the region at a time when China is also stepping up its influence.
The Asean summit is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bali, Indonesia, is the site of the G-20 summit.
Before that, Biden will stop in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, at the U.N. climate conference, known as COP27. Unlike last year’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the president will arrive at this year’s gathering able to point to significant achievements at home, with the August signing of legislation that will deliver the biggest investment in US history to battle climate change.
A look at major themes that will dominate Biden’s seven-day trip. The first stop is in Egypt on Friday.
Keeping the pressure on Russia
More than eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden is facing new challenges in his efforts to isolate Moscow. Elevated energy and food prices, and concerns in Europe about supplies of those vital commodities heading into the winter are testing global resolve to support Ukraine’s defense and punish Russia’s aggression.
At the G-20 summit, Biden will have his first opportunities to meet with two critical new partners in that effort: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.
Sunak, who took office last month after the disastrously short tenure of Liz Truss, has promised to continue his conservative predecessors’ steadfast support for Ukraine. He and Biden are set to strategize on new ways to bolster Ukraine’s defenses for the long haul.
Meloni has pledged to continue to provide arms and aid for Ukraine, but questions remain over her far-right coalition’s commitment to stand up to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not made public whether he plans to participate in the summit. Biden has said he has no plans to meet with Putin, but left the door open to a conversation if Putin wants to discuss a deal to free Americans imprisoned in Russia.
Biden administration officials have been coordinating with global counterparts to isolate Putin if he does decide to participate either in person, or virtually. They have discussed boycotts or other displays of condemnation.
Navigating the autocrats
Biden has spoken of a global struggle between autocracies and democracies. But increasingly he is having to rely on less-democratic leaders to further US interests, from Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is hosting the climate conference, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has resisted US pleas to curtail purchases of Russian oil.
Biden used his remarks at the United Nations in September to emphasize that the US was willing to work with all nations—no matter their systems of government—to effect change.
“The United Nations Charter was not only signed by democracies of the world, it was negotiated among citizens of dozens of nations with vastly different histories and ideologies, united in their commitment to work for peace,” Biden said at the time.
The administration says Biden has no plans to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the Opec+ cartel embarrassed Biden by cutting production months after his July meeting with the crown prince. Biden has blasted the move as indicating that Saudi Arabia was siding with Russia.
American voters on Tuesday will deliver a verdict on Biden’s governance and two years of Democratic control of Washington. It’s not clear how quickly control of the House and Senate will be known after Election Day. The White House has persistently sought to frame the midterms as a choice between dueling visions for the nation, rather than a referendum on Biden’s time in office.
Democrats are privately bracing to lose control of at least the House. A slew of Senate races that could tip power in the 50-50 chamber are considered toss-ups. Depending on the results, Biden could embark on his overseas trip significantly weakened politically.
The most acute impact abroad from Tuesday’s results in the United States could be the future of assistance to Ukraine. Though backing for aid has been broadly bipartisan, conservatives have increasingly voiced skepticism about the wisdom of continued support, as has California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader who is poised to become House speaker should Republicans win that chamber.
Still, some observers believed the midterm outcome, no matter the judgment, would have no significant impact on Biden’s maneuvering overseas.
“These issues tend to transcend politics,” said Ash Jain of the Atlantic Council, pointing to congressional support for Ukraine and bolstering US competition with China. “Biden’s discussions with leaders on these issues will largely be unaffected by the outcome of the election.”
A meeting with Xi?
US and Chinese officials are working out the logistics of such a meeting between the two leaders, which would be the first such in person during Biden’s presidency. It could come at time when Biden may have been politically punished by US voters while Xi consolidated his power during the Communist Party congress that concluded last month.
If a meeting happens, there will be no shortage of topics for Biden to raise with China, which the US government now says is its most potent military and economic rival.
Tensions have been rising between the two nations over Taiwan, particularly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August to the self-governing island and Biden’s repeated remarks that the US would militarily defend Taiwan if attacked by China—comments his aides have repeatedly walked back.
The matter of Trump-era trade penalties on Chinese goods also remains on the table. Biden is also likely to raise the issue of human rights abuses, particularly against the Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. China has also refrained from publicly taking Russia to task over Ukraine, although Putin said Xi privately relayed “concern and questions” about the invasion when the two met in Uzbekistan in September.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, stressed on Friday that the US government has never asked other countries to effectively choose between it and China, acknowledging that every nation can build relationships based on its own interests.
But “it’s not going to change the fact that we continue to want to make sure we’re in the best position we can to compete strategically with China and to confront the threats and challenges that China very physically, very tangibly represents—particularly in the Indo-Pacific region,” Kirby added.
Keeping up the momentum on climate change
At the climate conference, Biden will spotlight one of his key domestic successes—Democrats’ massive health care and climate change bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act.
The US commitment of some $375 billion over a decade to fight climate change gives Biden greater leverage to press other nations to make good on their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition the global economy toward cleaner energy sources.
Biden will be in far different position from last year’s gathering, which came about during a particularly unhappy stretch in the bill’s tortuous path to passage.
That summit resulted in additional global commitments to meet the temperature targets agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord, which Biden rejoined after then-President Donald Trump pulled the US from the deal. But even with the new US law, America and the world have a long way to go to meet emissions targets that scientists hope will contain global warming. And the political will for more investment—as the global economy faces new headwinds—is shrinking.
“There’s a real gap in public policy reality versus the ambition that was sealed at Glasgow,” said Joseph Majkut, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Energy Security and Climate Change Program.
Global eagerness for shifting away from fossil fuels has been tempered by the roiling of world energy markets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden is pressing oil and gas producers to boost production to meet demand and bring down prices that have funded the Kremlin’s war effort.
The prospects of a significant breakthrough are even slimmer as major emitters such as China and India are sending less-senior delegations. Biden administration officials have tried to lower expectations for results at the meeting and instead cast it as a return to US leadership on the issue.
Image credits: AP/Susan Walsh