The United States is asking countries in Southeast Asia to converge on a shared Pacific vision

  • Foreign Minister Antony Blinken traveled to Southeast Asia this week to strengthen US ties there.
  • The United States has sought to strengthen its relations with the region amid growing competition with China.
  • But the Southeast Asian countries are likely to resist anything that might look like choosing side.

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken interrupted a major trip to Southeast Asia on Wednesday when he returned from his first visit there as secretary after two of three planned stops.

A COVID-19 case among journalists traveling with Blinken ended recent efforts by US officials to strengthen ties and demonstrate commitment to a region strategically located and home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

In comments in Indonesia, including a key political speech, and in Malaysia, Blinken emphasized the United States’ desire to work with these countries and their neighbors “to advance our vision of a free, open, interconnected, prosperous, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific. . “

Blinken’s journey, like that of Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this year, comes as the United States seeks to counter Beijing’s growing influence across the Indo – Pacific. In addition to visits, U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, have met with practically Southeast Asian leaders and organizations.

Antony Blinken in Malaysia

Blinken and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Putrajaya, Malaysia, December 15, 2021.

Office / Distribution Sheet of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via REUTERS

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 among our partners in the region … in terms of the vision we have for the kind of region we want to live in,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, Deputy Foreign Minister for East Asia and Pacific, to journalists before Blinken’s journey, describing the vision as “a region free from coercion, a region where big countries do not bully the weak, and where all countries play by the rules.”

In his speech in Jakarta, Blinken said that China’s behavior was contrary to this vision.

“That’s why there is so much concern, from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and from the Mekong River to the Pacific Islands, about Beijing’s aggressive actions,” Blinken said. “Countries across the region want this behavior to change.”

Blinken set out a number of priorities for US engagement, including deepening economic ties and expanding cooperation on public health, education and climate change, among other issues. Strengthening Indo-Pacific security is also a pillar of the US approach.

“Threats are evolving. Our security approach needs to evolve with them,” Blinken said. “We will adopt a strategy that more closely interweaves all our national instruments of power – diplomacy, military, intelligence – with our allies and our partners.”

The coastal battleship USS Jackson during the US Indonesian Navy exercise

The US Navy’s coastal battleship USS Jackson and the Indonesian naval frigate KRI I Gusti Ngurah Rai in the Java Sea during a bilateral exercise, 9 November 2021.

Indonesian Navy

Maritime security has been an area of ​​interest for the United States and its partners in the region. Many of these countries dispute China’s demands in the South China Sea, which has led to confrontations with Beijing, and they are close to heavily trafficked waterways connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In addition to exercises, the U.S. military has trained and equipped its counterparts in the region to improve their ability to monitor and monitor their waterways.

Southeast Asia is “an important region,” and the countries that “feel the pressure from China,” Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said ahead of Blinken’s trip.

While in Indonesia, Blinken signed a memorandum of understanding – one for maritime cooperation, including joint naval exercises – “to bring our countries’ work together to another level.”

Blinken’s Malaysian counterpart also praised US military support, including providing drones to the Royal Malaysian Navy and “continuing to support the development of our maritime enforcement capacity.”

To choose without being asked

American and Malaysian naval divers during training

US Navy and Royal Malaysian Navy divers pose for a photo during an exercise, November 28, 2021.

US Navy

While China has frustrated many in Southeast Asia, experts say the region does not necessarily share the United States’ view of China or see close cooperation with Washington as the way to respond.

“People across the region are certainly scared and frustrated by China’s military and diplomatic aggression,” said Charles Dunst, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But still, they do not turn around and say, ‘well, China is bad, so the United States is good, and we are all pro-America now.'”

The United States has also not yet formulated its economic approach to the region, which is seen as a major shortcoming in its commitment. If the goal is to counter China, Dunst said, “one has to have genuine, aggressive economic plans that actually respond to what local people need.”

Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Center for Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore, said the Southeast Asian countries have “no consensus or consensus” on China and the United States.

“Each country has its own strategic interests and domestic policy considerations, creating different potential divergence or convergence with the U.S. agenda,” Laksmana told Insider.

Joko Widodo and Antony Blinken in Jakarta Indonesia

Blink with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, December 13, 2021.

Lukas / Indonesia Presidential Palace / Distribution via REUTERS

This may be particularly the case in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Blinken gave a big speech there was seen as a recognition of its importance in the region, and officials there were receptive. However, Jakarta has a history of freedom of alliance and is likely to seek neutrality on US-China issues.

Indonesia “is not going to be a country that will join the US balance coalition against China. It’s basically just not suitable or inclined to do so,” said Hervé Lemahieu, research director at Australia’s think tank Lowy Institute.

Not all Southeast Asian states prioritize disputes in the South China Sea or share U.S. concern over China’s growing economic influence, Laksmana said. The emphasis the United States is on addressing China’s activity in these areas may affect how the region views potential cooperation with the United States on other issues.

“The United States should work on issues and policies for each individual [Southeast Asian] State says it wants to continue working without imposing or adding unnecessary elements of competition between the United States and China, “said Laksmana.” As long as the United States connects bilateral cooperation with its own strategic competition with China, the pressure on regional states to choose be there, though Washington may not publicly ask them to. “

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