The US Secretary of State’s brief trip to Southeast Asia is considered a symbol of Washington’s incomplete efforts in shaping its strategy with the region.
“More than any other region, developments in the Indo-Pacific will shape the direction of the world in the 21st century,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a regional strategic message on December 14. , when present in Indonesia, the first leg of his Southeast Asia tour.
Blinken’s visit was strongly communicated by the US State Department, which announced a few days ago about his statement with instructions for online monitoring. However, just a day later, the US State Department suddenly announced that the trip would be cut short, when Blinken had just arrived in Malaysia, due to the discovery of an Omicron mutant infection in the entourage.
Observers believe that this coincidence inadvertently symbolizes the US effort to approach the Indo-Pacific region: full of expectations but incomplete.
Since President Joe Biden took office, the US has increased its outreach to allies and partners in Southeast Asia over the past year. Many high-ranking officials visited the region including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink.
In the middle of this year, the US Secretary of State held a video conference with his ASEAN counterparts, and both Blinken and Minister Austin received a number of Southeast Asian officials in Washington.
The trip earlier this week was Blinken’s first visit to Southeast Asia as the highest-ranking US government diplomat, nearly a year since he was appointed. He came to the region amid a period when the Biden administration is facing a series of pressing foreign relations challenges, from the heating of the Russia-Ukraine border hotspot, efforts to resume deadlocked Iran nuclear talks, and dialogue with North Korea. Fairy almost completely freezes.
An increasingly aggressive China in the international arena is considered by President Biden to be the biggest challenge of the US in the current period. Observers say Blinken’s business trip to Southeast Asia is part of an effort to respond to that challenge. The US Secretary of State also once declared China as “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century” for the country.
In a speech on December 14 in Jakarta, Blinken pledged to strengthen the relationship between the US and the Indo-Pacific region with billions of dollars in investment and aid, to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. .
He also announced a series of agreements on maritime cooperation, the environment, education and civilian exchanges, with the main message that the United States can become a better partner with the region.
He cited that the US has donated more than 300 million doses of vaccines to the Indo-Pacific region, accounting for one-third of the vaccines this country supplies to the world, and will continue to invest billions of dollars in vaccine development. regional health system. Blinken stressed that the vaccines were provided with “no strings attached” economically or politically.
The US Secretary of State reiterated the principle that Washington “does not want conflict in the Indo-Pacific”, but is very concerned about Beijing’s “drastic actions” in the past time in the East Sea. Assessing the international trade flow of more than 3 trillion USD through the threatened region, the US Secretary of State emphasized China’s determination to work with regional partners to ensure freedom of navigation and change China’s behavior.
Blinken’s message was warmly welcomed in Indonesia. Tom Lebong, former Indonesian trade minister from 2015-2016, said that Blinken’s presentation had “hit” the aspiration of policymakers in the region, which is to offer concrete and realistic solutions. , instead of the “big swords” messages of the past two decades.
“I think this time the Biden administration is succeeding in Southeast Asia. They are regaining their footing and making up for lost time,” Lebong said.
However, there are still experts who expressed concern that the US has been slow in the region and that Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is incomplete.
Since Biden took office, he has not spoken by phone with any leader in Southeast Asia, although he has directly met with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. The promise to hold the US-ASEAN summit at the White House is still precarious, amid concerns about the Omicron mutation hindering the organization of the conference.
Blinken’s December 14 speech is considered to have sent a positive signal about efforts to reach the region, but has not yet outlined a new comprehensive US strategy for the Indo-Pacific.
“Washington doesn’t seem to be running out of realistic ideas for how to counter China’s influence, including Beijing’s strong economic clout in Asia,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst for the firm. policy consultant RAND Corp., commented.
The US Secretary of State still repeated the basic criteria that US officials often mention when talking about the region: strengthening allies, strengthening partners, ensuring a free and open environment, preserving order based based on international rules and high quality non-binding investment.
These messages were published in the Interim National Security Strategy Guide released by the Biden administration in March. Bliken also called his speech in Jakarta America’s “vision” for the region. , rather than a detailed and comprehensive strategy.
“Until a serious and concrete strategy has been finalized by the United States, Southeast Asia will not know what to expect about Washington’s future presence in the region,” warned Grossman.
The Biden administration has yet to come up with a specific policy to replace the option of re-entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the negotiating table.
“Economics continues to be the Achilles’ heel in Washington’s policy, especially as China has trailed the US in terms of trade and infrastructure investment in the region,” said Jonathan R. Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert at the Institute. Brookings of the US, comments.
Unlike his predecessor, President Biden is being extremely careful in persuading partners, affirming not to put pressure on the region to “choose sides”. However, in the context of increasingly fierce big-power competition, Southeast Asia still faces the risk of polarization with potentially serious consequences for regional stability and development, according to Stromseth.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in November was also displeased when Washington increased efforts to attract “like-minded” countries to deal with Beijing. He emphasized in the interview with Bloomberg that countries in the region all want to cooperate with the US, but no one will “want to join an alliance” against a certain country, “probably China”.
Experts say that in order to convince countries in the region, the US will have to make efforts to increase regular contact activities even more. “If it is serious about the idea of competing with China, the Biden administration needs to continue to promote activities in Southeast Asia, which are so important in today’s geopolitical competition,” said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute.
Meanwhile, Biden faces a difficult situation, having to take into account the concerns of other countries when trying to build a network to counter China, while racing against time to restore the US influence in the region. before it’s too late. “That partly makes the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US so far ambiguous and efforts to reach diplomacy have not made much progress,” Bland assessed.
Trung Nhan (Follow Foreign Policy, NY Times, CNN)