United States calls on Southeast Asian countries to converge on a shared vision for the Pacific
- Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Southeast Asia this week to strengthen ties with the United States.
- The United States has sought to strengthen its relations with the region amid increasing competition with China.
- But countries in Southeast Asia are likely to resist anything that looks like a side choice.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut short a major trip to Southeast Asia on Wednesday, returning from his first visit there as secretary after two of three scheduled stops.
A case of COVID-19 among journalists traveling with Blinken ended the latest effort by U.S. officials to strengthen ties and demonstrate their commitment to a strategically located region home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies.
In comments in Indonesia, including a key political speech, and Malaysia, Blinken underscored the United States’ desire to work with these countries and their neighbors “to advance our vision of a free, open, Indo-Pacific interconnected, thriving, resilient and secure. . “
Blinken’s trip, like those of Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this year, comes as the United States seeks to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. In addition to the visits, US officials including President Joe Biden held virtual meetings with leaders and organizations from Southeast Asia.
U.S. officials stress that they are not asking countries to choose the United States over China, but rather to work together on common goals.
“I think there is a huge convergence between our partners in the region (…) in terms of the vision that we have of the type of region in which we want to live,” Daniel Kritenbrink, secretary of the region, told reporters. Deputy State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. before Blinken’s trip, describing this vision as “a region without coercion, a region where the great countries do not intimidate the weak and where all countries play by the rules.”
In his speech in Jakarta, Blinken said China’s behavior was contrary to this vision.
“This is why Beijing’s aggressive actions are causing so much concern, from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and from the Mekong to the Pacific Islands,” Blinken said. “Countries in the region want this behavior to change.”
Blinken has set a number of priorities for U.S. engagement, including deepening economic ties and expanding cooperation on public health, education, and climate change, among others. Strengthening Indo-Pacific security is also a pillar of the American approach.
“Threats evolve. Our approach to security must evolve with them,” Blinken said. “We will adopt a strategy that weaves all our instruments of national power – diplomacy, military, intelligence – more closely with those of our allies and partners.”
Maritime security has been an area of ââfocus for the United States and its partners in the region. Many of those countries are contesting China’s claims to the South China Sea, which has led to clashes with Beijing, and are near busy waterways connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
In addition to exercises, the US military has trained and equipped its counterparts in the region to improve their ability to monitor and control their waterways.
Southeast Asia is “an important region” and countries in the region “are feeling the pressure from China,” Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said ahead of Blinken’s trip.
While in Indonesia, Blinken signed memoranda of understanding – one for maritime cooperation, including joint naval exercises – “to take the work of our countries to another level.”
Blinken’s Malaysian counterpart also praised US military support, including the provision of drones to the Royal Malaysian Navy and “continued support in developing our maritime control capability.”
Choose without being asked
While China has frustrated many in Southeast Asia, experts say the region doesn’t necessarily share the U.S. perspective on China or see a close partnership with Washington as the way to respond.
âPeople across the region are really scared and frustrated by China’s military and diplomatic aggressiveness,â said Charles Dunst, Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. âBut despite everything, they don’t turn around and say, ‘Well, China is bad, so the United States is good and we are all pro-American now. “”
The United States also has yet to articulate its economic approach to the region, which is seen as a major gap in its engagement. If the goal is to counter China, said Dunst, “you have to have real, aggressive economic plans that genuinely meet the needs of the local people.”
Evan Laksmana, senior researcher at the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore, said Southeast Asian countries had “no uniform view or consensus” on the China and the United States.
âEach country has its own strategic interests and national political considerations, creating different potential divergences or convergences with the US agenda,â Laksmana told Insider.
This can be especially true in Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia. Blinken giving an important speech there was seen as recognition of his importance to the region, and officials were receptive to it. Jakarta has a history of non-alignment, however, and is likely to seek neutrality on US-China issues.
Indonesia “is not going to be a country that is going to join the American balancing coalition against China. It is fundamentally not suited or inclined to do so,” said HervÃ© Lemahieu, research director at the Australian think tank Lowy Institute.
Not all Southeast Asian states prioritize the South China Sea disputes or share the United States’ concerns about China’s growing economic influence, Laksmana said. The United States’ focus on China’s activities in these areas may influence how the region views potential cooperation with the United States on other issues.
“The United States should work on the issues and policies that each individual [Southeast Asian] âAs long as the United States combines bilateral cooperation with its own strategic competition with China, the pressure for states in the region to choose there, even if Washington cannot publicly ask them to. “