Blinken in Indonesia as US seeks to counter China in SE Asia

Blinken in Indonesia as US seeks to counter China in SE Asia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during their meeting at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on Monday. (Courtesy of Agus Suparto/Indonesia's Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during their meeting at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on Monday. (Courtesy of Agus Suparto/Indonesia's Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS)

JAKARTA: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Indonesia on Monday, kicking off a short Southeast Asia trip aimed at strengthening relations with a region that has become a strategic arena for Washington and Beijing.

In his first Southeast Asia trip since US President Joe Biden took office in January, Blinken met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the first of several senior officials he will meet on a four-day tour that includes stops in Malaysia and Thailand.

Blinken congratulated the Indonesian leader on his country's G20 presidency and expressed support for its Indo-Pacific leadership role, as a "strong proponent of the rules-based international order," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

"They also discussed bilateral and regional cooperation to address challenges to democracy and human rights, as well as the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic," Price said in a statement.

Indonesia is Southeast Asia's biggest economy and its most populous nation. It is the third-largest democracy in the world, and also home to a third of its rainforests.

Its foreign ministry said bilateral agreements would be signed regarding education, peace corps and a maritime partnership.

Blinken will deliver a speech on US Indo-Pacific strategy on Tuesday in the capital Jakarta, among other events, before meetings in Malaysia and Thailand on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

Southeast Asia is a key stage for a rivalry between the United States and China, the world's two biggest economies, with a heated battle for influence as the Biden administration seeks to reconnect with a region to which US commitment was questioned under President Donald Trump.

Blinken will pursue Biden's aim of elevating engagement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc and discuss the president's vision for an Indo-Pacific economic framework, a top US diplomat for Asia said ahead of the trip.

The United States has been pushing back against Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea, a conduit for $3 trillion of annual trade, and accuses its vast coastguard fleet of bullying countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia by disrupting energy and fishing activities.

China claims almost the entire sea as its own, and has rejected US actions as interference by an outside power.

The Biden administration sees closer engagement in Southeast Asia as vital to its efforts to push back against China's growing power, but Trump's withdrawal from a regional trade deal in 2017 has limited its ability to exert economic influence, while Beijing has sought to bolster its trade ties.

The administration has yet to spell out what exactly Biden's envisaged economic framework will entail. 

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