As Beijing takes increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea and off the coast of Taiwan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Southeast Asian counterparts in Indonesia on Friday to warn them against “coercion,” a stand-in for China.
Blinken encouraged the divided region to stand for openness amid vows by Indonesian leaders and others that their region would not align itself in the heating competition between Washington and Beijing.
The trip by Blinken – his 12th to the Indo-Pacific region and fourth to Indonesia, he said – was a measure of the Biden administration’s broadening effort to woo countries away from overt alignment with Beijing amid an aggressive Chinese diplomatic push in parts of the world that Washington has sometimes neglected.
It was also a foray into the world of intense regional challenges, including North Korea, which tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, and Myanmar, whose repressive military dictatorship continues to imprison former leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior officials.
After his meetings, Blinken told reporters that he had advocated for “a region where countries are free to choose their own path and their own partners, where problems are dealt with openly.”
China and Russia also sent their top diplomats, a measure of the 10-nation regional group’s importance as a fast-growing bloc that is facing rapid population growth, increasing climate vulnerability and tension over global food prices that have swung wildly over the war in Ukraine.
Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, were cautious about Blinken’s entreaties, open to the United States but making no commitments to turning their back on Washington’s rivals. Still, many have been frustrated by China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea, and they have pushed back against its effort to do so.
“We are not choosing sides. We do not want to be proxies, we do not want to be vassal states, we do not want to be divided,” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters ahead of the meetings on Friday. “We are trying to avoid the bad old days of the Cold War, of proxy wars, when Southeast Asia was divided, or worse, an arena for proxy wars.”
But some choices may be unavoidable, as China, the United States and others increasingly erect trade barriers against each other that affect other economic partners as well.
“If the U.S. and China re de-risking, decoupling – however you want to call it, it’s happening – as international rules get more and more fragmented, these middle countries have to figure out how they navigate that space,” said Satu Limaye, vice president of the East-West Center, a think tank.
Blinken was capping a week that began in London with President Biden, then moved on to Vilnius, Lithuania, where NATO leaders bolstered their defenses against Russia, agreed to ship more arms to Ukraine and strategized about how to handle China as a global strategic challenge. The trip to Indonesia was the last stop in the round-the-world tour.
He met for more than 90 minutes on Thursday with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, before meeting Friday with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, regional foreign ministers and, jointly, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea.
One of the most immediate hot-button issues facing the region is the military government in Myanmar, which removed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi two years ago and has imprisoned her. Myanmar, a member of ASEAN, has been disinvited from gatherings as regional nations seek to restore the government.
But countries have not landed on a unified strategy, with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai announcing Wednesday that he had secretly visited Myanmar over the weekend and met with Suu Kyi in prison. She appeared to be in good health, but has spent the past two-and-a-half years in isolation and has not had access to media, Balakrishnan, of Singapore, later recounted to reporters.
That last conversation focused on the missile test by North Korea and other recent belligerent behavior from Pyongyang.
“There is no greater challenge to that common security” of the United States, Japan and South Korea, Blinken said, “than the ongoing provocations coming from North Korea.”
The Biden administration has been working to rebuild ties in a region that felt somewhat neglected by President Donald Trump, who skipped most ASEAN meetings during his time in office. But amid regional resistance to being pulled too strongly into one camp or another, U.S. leaders have had to do a delicate dance.
“The U.S. needs to watch its tone in terms of not looking like it’s trying to contain China,” said Alex Bristow, an expert on Indo-Pacific security policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
That sentiment was reflected by policymakers in their meetings.
“The Indo-Pacific is not a battleground. This region must remain stable,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a gathering of all of the foreign ministers who had come to Jakarta, according to remarks posted on her website.
“Some say the Indo-Pacific is experiencing symptoms of ‘a Cold War in hot places,’” she said.
Source: The Spokesman