By Tria Dianti
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Indonesia and Malaysia next week as Southeast Asia becomes a priority for Washington amid rising tensions with an increasingly aggressive China, analysts said Monday.
It will be Blinken’s first visit to Southeast Asia as America’s top diplomat. During his trip to Jakarta on Dec. 13 and 14, he is to give a lecture on Washington’s new Indo-Pacific strategy, according to the Indonesian foreign ministry.
Blinken’s visit “will initiate an increasingly high-level interaction between Indonesia and the United States in the context of the strategic partnership between the two countries,” I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, director general of the Americas and Europe desk at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, told reporters.
In Jakarta, Blinken will hold talks with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Ngurah said. They will discuss a range of strategic issues including trade and investment, infrastructure, climate change and cooperation in the health sector, according to Ngurah.
“Blinken plans to [also] be present at the Bali Democracy Forum meeting on Dec. 9, virtually,” Ngurah said about the annual conference established in 2008 to foster progressive democratic institutions in the Asia-Pacific region.
It was not yet known whether the U.S. diplomat would also meet with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Blinken will be attending the forum while his boss, U.S. President Joseph Biden, will simultaneously be hosting the Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9 and 10.
After Jakarta, Blinken will make a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Ngurah said, without providing details. Reuters cited anonymous sources as saying that the Malaysia visit is planned for Dec. 14 and 15.
Blinken may also visit Thailand, according to a report last week by Japan’s Kyodo News service, so a potential visit to Bangkok after Malaysia would be logical.
Washington, under the Biden administration, has been ratcheting up its engagement with Southeast Asia.
Blinken’s visit would come about two weeks after Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink made a stop in Jakarta as part of a four-nation tour of the region.
Kritenbrink’s visit, in turn, followed trips to the region by Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and State Department Counselor Derek Chollett.
BenarNews contacted the U.S. embassy in Jakarta for confirmation about Blinken’s visit, but did not immediately hear back.
‘New, comprehensive Indo-Pacific Strategy’
During his Indonesia trip, Blinken will deliver a policy speech on the U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Blinken will also discuss progress on strategic issues related to Indonesia-United States cooperation,” Ngurah said.
Blinken first mentioned this “new, comprehensive Indo-Pacific Strategy,” during a September meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers. Back then and since, Blinken and other officials have said Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy has much in common with ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook.
The U.S. strategy “builds on our shared vision for a free, open, interconnected, resilient, and secure region,” Blinken had said in September.
“Similar to ASEAN’s outlook, it will reflect Southeast Asia’s importance to the Indo-Pacific region, and the critical role that ASEAN plays in determining the region’s future.”
ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific, among other things, says that member-states must promote freedom, peace, stability and prosperity in the region, through a peaceful settlement of disputes, and through promoting the rule of law and rejecting the use of threats and force.
Despite China’s verbal agreement with ASEAN’s outlook, Southeast Asia has become a global geopolitical hotspot as Beijing militarizes and expands its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
China claims historical rights to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area roughly demarcated by a nine-dash line. But there are other claimants, and they include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Beijing has financial clout over many of these nations and analysts say this has emboldened China to allegedly trespass into other nations’ waters and airspaces.
Blinken visit ‘a positive thing’
Blinken’s visit to Southeast Asia should not only be viewed through the prism of U.S.-China competition, but in the context of renewed engagement with the region, according to Hunter Marston, an international relations expert at the Australian National University.
“Washington is also beginning to realize that these smaller nations are important for a variety of other reasons, including thriving trade and human relations, all of which are critical to the continued regional relevance of the U.S. going forward,” Marston told BenarNews.
Muhammad Arif, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia, welcomed Blinken’s planned visit.
“Blinken discussing issues such as investment and infrastructure is also a positive thing, because it means there is a realization in the U.S. government that the U.S. and the region must work together beyond security issues,” Arif told BenarNews.
That way, he said, Indonesia and other countries in the ASEAN region could benefit from healthy competition between the U.S. and China in terms of infrastructure and investment, he said.
An ASEAN summit in Washington?
During Kritenbrink’s visit last week, Arif had said that Washington needed to give more importance to Southeast Asia.
“[A] visit by the Assistant Secretary of State [Kritenbrink] cannot compensate for the lack of higher-level engagement,” he had told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, according to reports by Kyodo News and the state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA), Biden is proposing an ASEAN summit in Washington next month. The U.S. has proposed holding the summit in the third week of January and is discussing the date with ASEAN members, sources from the regional bloc were quoted as saying.
Kyodo and VNA had also said that Blinken’s visit to Southeast Asia would precede that possible summit.
BenarNews contacted the state department in Washington on Dec. 3 to seek confirmation about a U.S.-ASEAN summit, but a spokesperson replied, “We do not have any meetings or travel to announce at this time.”
If this proposed summit were indeed held, it would be the first in-person meeting between Biden and ASEAN leaders since he took office in January.