US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Indonesia on Monday, kicking off a visit to Southeast Asia aimed at strengthening ties in a region that has become a strategic battleground between Washington and Beijing.
In his first Southeast Asia trip since US President Joe Biden took office in January, Blinken will be in Malaysia and Thailand this week after visiting Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, where he will meet President Joko Widodo and will deliver a speech on US Indo-Pacific strategy on Tuesday.
Southeast Asia is a key stage for a rivalry between the US 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 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 US and Western allies are pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, a conduit for a third of global trade, and accuse 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 meddling 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.