Blinken slams ‘aggressive’ China; vows stronger Indo-Pacific ties

US secretary of state will also visit Malaysia and Thailand as Washington DC seeks to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks on the Biden administration's Indo-Pacific strategy at the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia December 14, 2021 [Olivier Douliery/Pool via Reuters]

The United States’s top diplomat says Washington will expand its military and economic relationships with partner countries in an Indo-Pacific region that he said was increasingly concerned over China’s “aggressive actions”.

During a visit to Indonesia, Antony Blinken on Tuesday described the Indo-Pacific as the world’s most dynamic region and said everyone had a stake in ensuring a status quo that was without coercion and intimidation, in a barely veiled reference to China.

“We’ll work with our allies and partners to defend the rules-based order that we’ve built together over decades to ensure the region remains open and accessible,” he said in a speech at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

“Let me be clear: the goal of defending the rules-based order is not to keep any country down. Rather, it’s to protect the right of all countries to choose their own path, free from coercion and intimidation.”

The US secretary of state is in Indonesia on his first visit to Southeast Asia since President Joe Biden took office in January, a trip aimed at shoring up relations after a period of uncertainty about the US commitment to Asia under the administration of Donald Trump.

Blinken’s weeklong tour will also take him to Malaysia and Thailand. Prominent on his agenda is countering China’s growing assertiveness in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong and against Taiwan.

South China Sea, Taiwan

Blinken insisted that Washington is not trying to force countries to choose between the US and China or seeking conflict with China. But he laid out a litany of complaints about “Beijing’s aggressive actions” from “Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and from the Mekong River to the Pacific Islands”.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change,” he said. “We do too.”

“We are determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” he said. “It is also why we have an abiding interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own, despite some overlapping claims with other coastal states and an international tribunal, which ruled that China’s vast claim has no legal basis. Beijing has rejected the US stance as interference from an outside power that could threaten Asia’s stability.

China’s foreign ministry had no immediate comment on Blinken’s remarks.

Despite tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing’s influence has grown in recent years as it pushes more infrastructure investment and integrated trade ties in the Asia-Pacific, in the perceived absence of a US economic strategy for the region.

Ei Sun Oh, an analyst at the Pacific Research Center in Malaysia, said while the US was engaging in “a superpower contest with China”, its aim of isolating Beijing will not bear out unless “it is ready to roll out renewed waves of trade and investment” with countries in the Asia Pacific.

“In this part of the world, it’s basically all about doing business, about trading with each other, about welcoming foreign investment,” Oh told Al Jazeera from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.

“The US did very well on that front in the 1980s and the 1990s. But since the last decade, we saw in essence, a slow but steady pullout of American investments in the region. Its trade with the region has come to be second place to China. So until it is able to restore its previous level of economic interaction with the region, I think China will still have an upper hand when it comes to engaging the region economically.”

‘Better kind of infrastructure’

In his speech, Blinken said the US was committed to a new comprehensive regional economic framework, which would include more US foreign direct investment and US companies identifying new opportunities in the region.

He also said the US would work to strengthen supply chains and close the region’s infrastructure gaps, from ports and roads to power grids and the internet.

In another swipe at China, he said the US was hearing increasing concerns in the Indo-Pacific about opaque, corrupt processes of foreign companies that imported their own labour, drained natural resources and polluted the environment.

“Countries in the Indo-Pacific want a better kind of infrastructure,” he said.

“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.”

Blinken also said the US “will forge stronger connections” with its five treaty allies in the region – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand – boost ties between them and cultivate a stronger partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

“A strong and independent ASEAN has long been central to tackle urgent crises and long-term challenges,” Blinken said, in particular calling out the military rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, for their February takeover and subsequent crackdown on protesters.

“We will continue to work with our allies and partners to press the regime to cease its indiscriminate violence, release all of those unjustly detained, allow unhindered access, and restore Burma’s path to inclusive democracy,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies