Biden seizes a chance to refocus on Asia as wars rage in Europe and the Mideast

Nov 16, 2023, 11:24 PM | Updated: Nov 17, 2023, 12:48 pm

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Sometimes it can be easy to forget that President Joe Biden’s original foreign policy priority was reasserting American influence in Asia.

After all, that was before Russian tanks tried to blitz Ukraine, and before Israel and Hamas descended into a fresh round of bloody fighting. With each new crisis, it appeared that Asia was slipping further down the presidential to-do list.

But this week was a rare opportunity for Biden to demonstrate otherwise. While playing host for an annual summit of Asian leaders in San Francisco, he could finally refocus on the continent that he views as key to the future.

“The United States remains vital to the future of the region, and the region is more vital than ever to the United States of America,” he told a gathering of business executives during one of the summit’s many receptions. “That’s been my administration’s outlook from day one.”

Turning that vision into a reality has never been more challenging. Biden’s tenure as president is being constantly reshaped by two very different and unpredictable wars in Europe and the Middle East. He’s also struggling to ease doubts about his reelection chances as Donald Trump, the former Republican president, pursues a comeback bid for the White House that would upend American foreign policy.

However, those concerns faded into the background for at least a few days during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Biden outlined a vision of collaboration and friendship for the region during a gala for visiting dignitaries on Wednesday evening.

“From here in San Francisco, America reaches out all across the Pacific, building bridges mightier than the Golden Gate,” he said. He added that everyone should “take full advantage of this summit to make new connections and spark new partnerships.”

On Thursday, Biden attended a working lunch with regional leaders and posed for pictures with his counterparts. He carved out time for a separate photo with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, a reflection of closer relations between the two U.S. allies.

And Friday, in his closing remarks as he handed over conference ownership to Peru for next year, he told leaders: “America’s commitment to the Asian Pacific is unwavering and in our view – from America’s perspective – essential.”

Biden has always described recalibrating U.S. foreign policy toward Asia as the true test of his administration. The region is the most important crossroads for global trade, a source of critical minerals for fighting climate change and a hub of technological innovation.

It also remains a potential flashpoint for conflict as Biden tries to counter the rise of authoritarian China, which is emerging as a counterweight to the liberal world order.

Biden’s most important meeting of the week was unquestionably his hours-long encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, which overshadowed the summit itself. The conversation ended with new commitments for Beijing to crack down on the flow of fentanyl and reengage in communications between the two countries’ militaries.

The fentanyl agreement prompted the U.S. to lift trade sanctions against the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science, a move that was announced the day after Biden met with Xi.

The institute had been sanctioned three years ago when the U.S. Commerce Department said it was “complicit in human rights violations and abuses” against ethnic and religious minorities in China.

A senior administration official said Biden and Xi were more candid with each other than the last time they met, almost exactly one year ago on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

It helped, the official said, that concerns about the coronavirus have eased, and the leaders and their advisers were able to sit more closely together.

The intimacy did not preclude disagreements. The official, who insisted on anonymity to describe private conversations, said Biden expressed concerns about Chinese rules on intellectual property, while Xi complained about how the Chinese Communist Party has been negatively portrayed in the U.S.

Biden also pressed China to use its influence to persuade Iran to avoid provocations in the Middle East, which could cause the war between Israel and Hamas to engulf more of the region.

The entreaty doubled as a sign of respect from Biden to Xi, acknowledging China’s desire to play a larger role on the global stage.

Indeed, Beijing appeared pleased by Xi’s reception in San Francisco. Chinese state media described how Biden greeted Xi at the picturesque estate where they met outside the city and then personally saw him off afterward.

The official Xinhua news agency ran a photo in which Biden showed a picture of Xi posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge when he visited in 1985 as a county party chief.

“Do you recognize this young man?” Biden asked Xi, as reported by Xinhua. “You haven’t changed a bit,” Biden said, triggering laughter in the room.

Relations between Washington and Beijing threatened to unravel earlier this year when a Chinese spy balloon floated over the United States, sparking a political uproar. But since then, diplomats have worked toward a rapprochement, culminating in Wednesday’s meeting.

Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, said Xi and Biden both had their own reasons for wanting to ease tensions.

“One could argue that as Xi seeks stability with U.S. so that he can focus on domestic challenges, Biden is seeking stability partially with China because the U.S. attention is also distracted elsewhere,” she said, referring to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Reminders of conflict in the Middle East were kept on the periphery of this week’s summit. Protesters calling for a cease-fire in Gaza shut down all vehicular traffic heading into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge. Some lay on the ground covered in white sheets to represent slain Palestinians.

Aisha Nizar with the Palestinian Youth Movement said in a statement that Biden was “hosting cocktail parties in San Francisco” while thousands of people were being killed.

Biden wasn’t the only world leader looking to bolster his position with a few rounds of international speed dating.

Xi used the summit as an opportunity to meet individually with leaders from Bahrain, Fiji, Japan, Mexico and Peru.

He also outlined his own vision for relations between the U.S. and China in a written speech for an audience of hundreds of business leaders.

“The more difficulties there are, the greater the need for us to forge a closer bond between our peoples and to open our hearts to each other, and more people need to speak up for the relationship,” he said.

However, Xi indicated that he did not want limits on China’s ambitions.

“We will be glad to see a confident, open, ever-growing and prosperous United States,” he said. “Likewise, the United States should not bet against China, or interfere with China’s internal affairs.”

___ Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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Biden seizes a chance to refocus on Asia as wars rage in Europe and the Mideast