- Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Southeast Asia this week to boost US ties there.
- The US has sought to strengthen its relations with the region amid increasing competition with China.
- But Southeast Asian countries are likely to resist anything that could look like picking sides.
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 planned stops.
A COVID-19 case among journalists traveling with Blinken ended the latest effort by US officials to strengthen ties and demonstrate commitment to a region that’s strategically located and home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
In comments in Indonesia, including a key policy speech, and in Malaysia, Blinken emphasized the US desire to work with those countries and their neighbors “to advance our vision for a free, open, interconnected, prosperous, resilient, and secure Indo-Pacific.”
Blinken’s trip, like those of Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this year, comes as the US seeks to counter Beijing’s increasing influence across the Indo-Pacific. In addition to visits, US officials, including President Joe Biden, have met virtually with Southeast Asian leaders and organizations.
US officials stress that they are not asking countries to choose the US over China but rather to work together on common goals.
“I think there’s tremendous convergence among our partners in the region … in terms of the vision we have for the kind of region we want to live in,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters before Blinken’s trip, describing that vision as “a region that is free of coercion, a region where large countries do not bully the weak, and where all countries play by the rules.”
In his speech in Jakarta, Blinken said China’s behavior was antithetical to that 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 laid 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. Bolstering Indo-Pacific security is also a pillar of the US approach.
“Threats are evolving. Our security approach has to evolve with them,” Blinken said. “We’ll adopt a strategy that more closely weaves together all our instruments of national power — diplomacy, military, intelligence — with those of our allies and our partners.”
Maritime security has been an area of interest for the US and its partners in the region. Many of those countries dispute China’s claims in the South China Sea, which has led to confrontations with Beijing, and are near heavily trafficked 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 police their waterways.
Southeast Asia is “an important region,” and countries there “are feeling the pressure from China,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said prior to Blinken’s trip.
While in Indonesia, Blinken signed memoranda 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 “continued support in the development of our maritime enforcement capacity.”
Choosing without being asked
While China has frustrated many in Southeast Asia, experts say the region doesn’t necessarily share US views of China or see partnering closely with Washington as the way to respond.
“People throughout the region are definitely fearful of and frustrated with China’s military and diplomatic aggressiveness,” said Charles Dunst, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But still, they’re not turning around and saying, ‘well, China is bad, so the US good and we’re all pro-America now.'”
The US has also yet to articulate its economic approach to the region, which is seen as a major shortcoming in its engagement. If the goal is to counter China, Dunst said, “you have to have real, aggressive economic plans that actually respond to what local populations need.”
Evan Laksmana, a senior research fellow with the Center on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore, said Southeast Asian countries have “no uniform view or consensus” on China and the US.
“Each country has their own strategic interests and domestic political considerations, creating different potential divergence or convergence with the US agenda,” Laksmana told Insider.
That may be especially true in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy. Blinken delivering a major speech there was seen as an acknowledgement of its importance in the region, and officials there were receptive. 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’s going to join the US balancing coalition against China. It’s fundamentally just not suited or inclined to doing that,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank.
Not all Southeast Asian states prioritize South China Sea disputes or share US concern about China’s growing economic influence, Laksmana said. The emphasis the US puts on addressing China’s activity in those areas may influence how the region views potential cooperation with the US on other matters.
“The US should work on issue areas and policies each individual [Southeast Asian] state say they would like to work on without imposing or injecting unnecessary US-China competitive elements,” Laksmana said. “As long as the US ties bilateral cooperation with its own strategic competition with China, the pressure for regional states to choose will always be there, even if Washington may not publicly ask them to.”