Top diplomat Antony Blinken to visit Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as US seeks to boost engagement

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand next week on his first trip to Southeast Asia, as Washington seeks to ramp up engagement with the region.

The four-day trip will come after Blinken attends a Group of Seven meeting of foreign ministers in the British city of Liverpool over the weekend. Top diplomats from Australia, India, South Korea and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will join the gathering as guests, the US State Department said on Wednesday.

Blinken’s Southeast Asia tour follows a trip to Cambodia and Indonesia by State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet that began on Wednesday.

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In Jakarta, Blinken will give a speech on “the significance of the Indo-Pacific region” and in Kuala Lumpur he will address the need for the region to remain “free and open”, according to the State Department.

Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the trip would be “the latest example of the Biden-Harris administration’s sustained engagement”.

He said Blinken’s meetings on security would focus on “strengthening the regional security infrastructure in response to PRC bullying in the South China Sea” and he would also discuss “unilateral PRC actions in the Mekong River”.

Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea have been challenged by Asean member states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The strategic waterway has become a potential flashpoint between China and the US, and both have stepped up their military presence there, while the new Aukus security alliance between the US, Britain and Australia has added to tensions.

Washington’s latest diplomatic push in Southeast Asia comes as Beijing is also seeking closer ties in the region. President Xi Jinping hosted a virtual summit with Asean leaders last month, with the two sides agreeing to upgrade relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” – usually a sign of increased security cooperation.

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Blinken will also raise the ongoing crisis in Myanmar during next week’s trip, and “reiterate to his counterparts the importance of holding the Burmese military regime to account for its crimes and seeking to restore Burma’s path to democracy”, Kritenbrink said, using a former name for Myanmar.

The country has been in chaos since the military overthrew a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup in February that sparked widespread protests which were met with lethal force. Suu Kyi was sentenced by a court on Monday to four years in jail for inciting public unrest and breaching Covid-19 restrictions. The sentence was later reduced to two years by junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Both Washington and Beijing have said they support Asean’s centrality in dealing with the crisis in Myanmar and backed the bloc’s “five-point consensus” plan to restore peace in the country.

But Yin Yihang, a fellow with Beijing-based think tank the Taihe Institute, noted that the two powers were following different diplomatic paths.

China – a neighbour and Myanmar’s largest trading partner – has refrained from criticising the military junta since the coup and has urged the parties to seek a political settlement through dialogue under the constitutional and legal framework.

According to Yin, the US “is keen to sway the policymaking of key Asean member states to steer Asean in the direction the US wants it to go in resolving the Myanmar crisis”.

He said the US may step up sanctions against the military junta in response to Suu Kyi’s sentencing. “But there is still no fundamental change in Washington’s policy towards Myanmar and it will still not intervene directly in the political crisis,” Yin said.

Chen Xiangmiao, an associate research fellow with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, said the US could also try to seek common ground with Indonesia to take a tougher stand on Myanmar’s military junta. Indonesia has been leading the push for high-level talks to convince the military to restore stability in the country and release Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders.

Tensions have flared between Jakarta and Beijing over an Indonesian oil and gas drilling operation in a maritime area that both countries claim in the South China Sea. But Chen said it was unlikely that Indonesia would side with the US to confront China. “These frictions shouldn’t affect overall relations,” he said. “Southeast Asia remains very cautious and won’t easily take a side.”

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