It will likely burnish Xi’s public image and help him gain the third term he seeks at the upcoming Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress. Conversely, it could make Biden look even softer than he is on China.
In agreeing to the meeting, perhaps Biden wants to get trade with China flowing again to reward his corporate backers. He has been looking for an excuse to remove the Trump administration's tariffs on China, and a meeting with Xi could be that moment. Any improvement to China’s human rights or decrease in territorial aggression is unlikely under Xi’s leadership.
Biden’s meetings in Southeast Asia, doubtless to include leaders from the region, will be a litmus test as to whether the Democrats can achieve concrete gains against the increasingly powerful regime in Beijing.
This core has expanded over the years from the original claims over Taiwan to those in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as the regime’s authoritarian “development” model. Some ranking officials in China have also called the South and East China seas a core interest of China.
The implication is that, unlike “important” and “secondary” interests, Beijing is willing to go to war over core interests.
Both leaders will be competing for influence among Southeast Asian countries, where they could meet Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Brunei.
ASEAN makes decisions by consensus, and two of those countries—Cambodia and Laos—have traditionally vetoed any proposals, for example from the Philippines and Vietnam, seen to go against Beijing’s interests.
The base in Cambodia is the PLA’s second on foreign territory, after one approved by Xi in 2013 in Djibouti, East Africa. The Djibouti base is indicative of how the Cambodia base could be used against the United States and its allies.
The base will move China toward achieving a network of global bases to support its military power projection. In addition to Cambodia and Djibouti, China is likely seeking military basing rights in Indonesia, Pakistan, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.
This network of PLA bases could support its global intelligence collection and offensive operations against the United States and its allies.
In 2021, U.S. intelligence learned that the PLA was secretly building a base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). U.S. officials were able to pressure Abu Dhabi to halt construction. If Biden is right about the superiority of his foreign policy approach in Asia, he should be able to prove it by getting the PLA’s base in Cambodia canceled as well.
But the opposite is occurring. Perhaps due to China’s increased influence in Cambodia, or because of Democrat foreign policy weakness relative to that of Republicans, U.S.-funded facilities at the Ream Naval Base were demolished, according to a 2021 Pentagon report.
Likewise, a “Joint Vietnamese Friendship” building on the base has been removed to another location so as not to conflict with China. (Vietnam and China are in a relatively tense standoff over Beijing’s increasingly expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.)
Biden’s trip to Southeast Asia will be a litmus test as to whether the Democrat’s foreign policy is seen as weak relative to the Republicans, or whether Biden’s ally-focused foreign policy can achieve concrete results against China.
Chief among these should be the cancellation of China’s military base in Cambodia. If all of America’s international development funding, Asia-Pacific alliances, and market power as the world’s biggest economy cannot achieve results in Cambodia, what can it achieve under the Democrats?