Blinken visits South East Asia again

– New perspectives from the East

ANOTHER tour started on December 9 by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is perhaps unprecedented since taking office, both in the number of countries visited and the breadth of topics that needed to be discussed with foreign colleagues .

The plan called for the trip to include three phases: a stopover in Liverpool to attend a G7 ministerial meeting, a visit to three countries in Southeast Asia and, finally, a meeting in Honolulu with the commander of the Indo-Command. Peacekeeper of the United States, Admiral John Aquilino, appointed to this post only six months earlier. The three phases have been united by the main foreign policy issue in which US leaders recognize China as a world power.

The author does not intend to address here the question, however legitimate, of knowing why the United States perceives China as a world power. Let us take for granted this position of Washington, which in turn is one of the main constants of the modern scene of great world politics. Therefore, it is appropriate to underline the second of the three stages described above, since it is in the sub-region of South-East Asia, to which Taiwan adjoins, that the confrontation between the two great world powers takes place in the most acute and dangerous form. And the theme of confrontation with China was also Antony Blinken’s primary concern throughout this tour.

During the first phase of the Secretary of State’s visit, i.e. the regular G7 ministerial meeting held on 11-12 December in Liverpool, a separate meeting was devoted to the situation in Southeast Asia. It was the first time that ministers from the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been invited. One party was directly in Liverpool, the other party was speaking via video link.

British Foreign Minister Elizabeth Truss played a leading role throughout the G7 forum. She was the main generator of the well-established anti-Chinese and anti-Russian rhetoric in Liverpool.

The invitation of the ASEAN ministers can also be seen as a step to keep afloat the configuration of the G7, which is rapidly losing its previous weight in world politics. During the regular G7 ministerial meeting, the mass media around the world did not mention anything else except the countries mentioned above. This is why so much attention was paid to the fact that forum participants visited The Beatles Story, a museum in Liverpool, where Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi performed “Imagine”, a song by John Lennon, on the museum piano.

Antony Blinken had the opportunity to perform his own “diplomatic tune” in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which was the next point of the tour after Liverpool. Several events took place here, including meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. During one of the events, Antony Blinken gave an opening speech, several passages of which deserve attention.

First and foremost, this is the definition of the United States Secretary of State as a “proud Indo-Pacific nation” committed to working with regional allies and partners. It is not the first time that American leaders, including recent presidents, have declared that the United States belongs to this region. In this case, Antony Blinken only confirmed the above-mentioned trend of shifting core interests from Washington to the Indo-Pacific region.

Explaining why the region will shape the global trajectory of the 21st century, the US Secretary of State recalls that it is already home to 60% of the world economy and is expected to grow by two-thirds over the next five years. The Indo-Pacific region is home to half of the world’s population and the world’s largest economies. Most of the future face of our planet, according to Antony Blinken, will be formed in this region.

The American strategy was outlined there according to the following five main theses:

– “The principle of freedom and openness of the Indo-Pacific region will be promoted”;

– “Links inside and outside the region will be strengthened”;

– “We will promote universal prosperity”;

– “We will increase the sustainability of the Indo-Pacific region” in the spread of the Covid pandemic and climate change; and

– “We will strengthen security in the Indo-Pacific region. “

At the level of public rhetoric, all of these elements of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region, in one form or another – applicable, however, to other regions as well – have been sketched out before. This is especially true of the first of them, which has become a repeated meme whenever the key question of American positioning is raised directly or indirectly due to the perception of China’s emergence as the second world power.

Antony Blinken illustrated all these theses with concrete examples. The first can be explained, for example, by the question of democracy and respect for human rights, in which the Summit for Democracy which has just taken place is mentioned. The two, he said, are being raped in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) after the famous events that happened in that country on February 1 of this year.

To explain the second and fifth elements, reference was made to long-established military alliances with several countries in the region – Japan, Australia, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand – as well as the new AUKUS configuration, which included the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. There was also talk of a QUAD configuration involving the United States, Japan, India and Australia that would not yet contain a military component.

From Jakarta, the US Secretary of State traveled to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, where he met with Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. Judging from the content of Saifuddin Abdullah and Antony Blinken’s joint press conference, the main provisions of the latter’s political declaration in Jakarta, in one form or another, were present when he presented the US position at the meeting. talks in Malaysia.

In Kuala Lumpur, the second leg and all of the US Secretary of State’s discussed overseas trip came to an end. That is, his visit to Thailand and his meeting with the commander of the American Indo-Pacific command, Admiral John Aquilino, were canceled because one of the members of the delegation turned out be infected with Covid-19, which should not be taken lightly.

Nevertheless, the very planning of this last phase deserves at least a brief remark. The point is that the problem of strengthening the US military presence in the Indo-Asian region has received increased attention for a long time – at least since the second half of the Zero Decade. Today, the US Indo-Pacific Command is the largest and most powerful of the US armed forces. The plan for the US Secretary of State’s visit to the Indo-Pacific Command headquarters was tied to an important message to the outside world, which once again confirmed the validity of President Joe Biden’s key thesis regarding the strategy of foreign policy of his administration. This thesis asserts that American military might will reinforce the “priority of diplomacy” on the international scene. As they say, this is great news.

The fact illustrates the growing importance of Southeast Asia in US foreign policy, with senior US officials visiting the sub-region more frequently. For Antony Blinken, it was his third visit in 2021. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has visited twice, the first time accompanied by Antony Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris has visited is also made there. President Joe Biden has participated in several ASEAN-based online forums.

Note that China is in no way inferior to the United States in its positions in Southeast Asia. The significant adjustment by China of its strategy in the sub-region in the middle of the last decade in terms of reducing its military and political assertiveness in its relations with the countries of Southeast Asia has largely contributed to this. At the same time, the component related to trade and economic cooperation and the implementation of joint projects, for example those motivated by the need to manage the water resources of the Mekong, has greatly increased.

Perhaps the very presence of these two tendencies in Beijing’s foreign policy reflects the presence of different factions within the country’s leadership, which no less approach the solution of its foreign policy problems differently.

It should be emphasized once again that all of the above confirms the effect of the refocusing of US foreign policy preferences towards the Indo-Pacific region in general, and Southeast Asia in particular. These preferences are increasingly at odds with the interests of a key geopolitical adversary, namely China.

New Eastern Outlook, December 24. Vladimir Terehov is an expert on Asia-Pacific issues.

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