Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed to bolstering US partnerships in the Indo-Pacific as a counterweight to China’s aggressive actions during a speech in Indonesia on Tuesday, coming as the Biden administration has been largely focused on foreign policy challenges in other areas of the world.
“I am here, we are here, because what happens in the Indo-Pacific will, more than any other region, shape the trajectory of the world in the 21st century,” Blinken said.
Blinken’s trip marks his first visit to Southeast Asia as Biden’s top diplomat, coming almost a year into the Democrat’s presidency. Meanwhile, the Biden administration faces a number of pressing foreign policy challenges that have required top Biden administration officials’ attention, including Russian aggression towards Ukraine and Iran deal talks that have so far been unsuccessful.
But taking on an increasingly aggressive China is largely seen as Biden’s most critical international challenge, and this visit was part of that mission. Earlier this year Blinken said that China is America’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
Blinken did highlight concerns over Beijing’s “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea, which he said threatened the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of commerce every year. He said the US is determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the area alongside regional partners.
“Countries in the region want this behavior to change. We do too,” Blinken said, without naming China.
In addition to Indonesia, Blinken will also visit Thailand and Malaysia on his trip.
Some regional experts have expressed concern that Blinken is only now visiting the region. And the Biden administration still has yet to reveal its overall Indo-Pacific strategy.
“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 partners,” Blinken said.
Blinken’s speech focused on the basics that the administration has already honed in on when it comes to the region: shoring up alliances, standing up for a free and open Indo-Pacific, defending democratic principles, providing high quality and no strings attached investments and strengthening security and public health cooperation.
When asked about the timing of the rollout of the entire strategy during a press conference later in the day, Blinken demurred.
Despite an effort to really focus on the Indo-Pacific region during this trip, Blinken faced an unusual situation during his visit: a competing visit to Jakarta from Putin’s national security adviser Nikolay Patrushev.
Patrushev overlapped with Blinken just days after the US and its G7 allies offered a harsh warning to Russia that they must de-escalate aggression towards Ukraine or face severe consequences
“I noticed his plane on the runway next to ours when we landed. I can’t nor would I speak to why anyone else might be here and what they are doing,” Blinken said.
Blinken pointed to the top State Department official for Europe who will visit Russia this week to test if Russia is serious about engaging in diplomacy – through the Minsk agreement – to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine.
Biden to invite ASEAN leaders to a summit in the US
Biden will invite leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to a summit in the US in the coming months to discuss how to turn these efforts into reality, Blinken said during his speech.
Strengthening the US relationship with Indonesia – the third largest democracy in the world – is viewed as central to the Biden administration’s effort to compete with China. Indonesia has close ties to China, particularly economically, but seeks to maintain independence from alignment with only the US or only China.
Many other countries in the region have a similar lack of desire to engage in competition between the world powers that has undertones of the Cold War.
Biden has said that the US and its closest allies are in a “contest” to see if democracies can compete with autocracies like China. But Blinken’s language on Tuesday was considerably softer, revealing an understanding of the delicate balance regional countries must strike, given heavy economic reliance on China.
“It’s not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region – the Indo-Pacific is its own region,” Blinken said. “Rather, it’s about upholding the rights and agreements that are responsible for the most peaceful and prosperous period this region – and the world – has ever experienced.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a Tuesday that Blinken’s Asia-Pacific strategy was “self-contradictory.”
“Such a self-contradictory approach is not in keeping with the spirit of the China-US summit and is hardly recognized by countries in the region,” Wang said, adding that the US should “earnestly respect” the ASEAN regional cooperation, instead of “drawing ideological lines,” “mobilizing blocs for confrontation” and “sending ships and planes to the South China Sea to show off the military force and provoke trouble.”
During his speech, Blinken noted the investments the US has made in the region. On climate the US spent more than $7 billion in renewable energy investments in the area in the last five years, and on public health the US has sent more than 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the Indo-Pacific, he said.
China is the largest trading partner for most of the countries Blinken is visiting this week, but the US is increasing investment and trade in the region. So far this year, US trade with Indonesia has reached $29.6 billion, up more than 34% from the same period in previous years, the Indonesian foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Blinken also suggested that the US can provide a more reliable option when it comes to infrastructure investment, which China has largely dominated as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
“Countries in the Indo-Pacific want a better kind of infrastructure,” Blinken said, citing concerns from partners about what happens when infrastructure investments are corrupt and harmful to local communities. “But many feel it’s too expensive, or they feel pressured to take bad deals on terms set by others, rather than no deals at all. So, we will work with countries in the region to deliver the high quality, high standards infrastructure their people deserve.”
In order to maintain faith in the relationship with the US, regional experts say more regular engagement will be necessary.
“If it is serious about competing with China, the Biden administration needs to continue intensifying its engagement in Southeast Asia, which lies at the center of the geopolitical contest of our times,” said Ben Bland, the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute.