By Safiye ERGUN
Redacted by Sami BURGAZ
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a video conference series with ASEAN-related bureaucrats between 2-6 August 2021. The schedule of the meetings was quite crowded.
During the week, he attended the annual assembly of the ten ASEAN foreign ministers and held separate talks with Lower Mekong countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. He also co-chaired the US-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and took part in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum as well. In addition, he chaired the Friends of the Mekong anniversary summit.
When it was announced on July 31 that the conferences would be held for five consecutive days, it was also expounded that these meetings were an instrument for the US to show its primary interest in the region as well as the Myanmar crisis.
It was expected from the agenda that the main talking points would be the fight against COVID-19, promoting vaccines, accelerating mutual economic recovery, and fostering cooperation on regional subjects. As the expected, the outcomes of the meetings were as desired.
On the other hand, the US has been on the agenda lately due to its frequent visits to Southeast Asian states in recent months. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand in May and June. Blinken attended the ASEAN-US Secretary of State Special Meeting on July 14. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines last week. Blinken had a series of conferences this week, and it is known that Vice President Kamala Harris will also visit Singapore and Vietnam in the coming days.
Additionally, the US has sent COVID-19 vaccines to a plethora of South and Southeast Asian nations. However, it is noteworthy that Myanmar, which had a military coup on 1st of February, is not among the states which received vaccines.
It was shared as a backstage information that Blinken will organise a virtual forum with the military government in Myanmar as a follow up to his ASEAN meetings. However, this summit would aim to receive messages from the military government rather than to give legitimacy to it. One of the critical issues expected from these meetings was the search for a diplomatic solution to restore stability to Myanmar. One of the most major actors in the region is, of course, China, and Chinese experts underlined that Washington and Beijing cannot work together on the Myanmar issue though they both agreed on peace and stability needs to dominate the country.
In the early days of the Biden administration, South Asian states, which are mostly overshadowed by China, had little place on the US agenda. As a geopolitical assessment, Southeast Asia is full of hopeful developing countries; and current management, unlike Trump, seems to have taken note. Today, it is likely to say that the US has updated its priorities in its foreign policy and it is very likely that the interest in the South Asian region is expected to grow exponentially.
Analysts from Global Times evaluated the growing US interest in the region by emphasising those visits as “unusually frequent”: “Trips expose Washington’s anxiety on marshalling regional states against China.” Chinese experts warned that the US will likely pursue an “us or them” strategy the region, but underlined the fact that it should not be too eager in its expectations. These meetings are further interpreted by the Chinese side as recent unprecedented efforts by the United States to incite Southeast Asia against China and create divisions in the region.
The trade between China and ASEAN countries reached a record level with the COVID-19 outbreak, and the US’s interest in the region increased thereafter, which is evaluated as profound by Chinese experts. It should also be remembered that foreign ministers of ASEAN countries visited China recently and increased their interaction with Chinese officials. According to the Chinese side, it is possible to say that these developments put significant pressure on the US and directed the Biden administration to strengthen its relationship with the region.
Among the conferences, the one with the Foreign Ministries of ASEAN states drew attention besides the meeting with Indonesia, which is the largest country and economy of ASEAN and a member of the G20. Another striking point of the gatherings was Blinken’s chairmanship of The Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Friends of the Mekong Ministerials.
US – ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting
Blinken and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers discussed regional and international challenges, including combating the coronavirus pandemic, fighting against the climate crisis, strengthening human capital development, and the “urgency” of action on Myanmar in the forum in August 3.
Blinken stated that the USA, with its great initiative and aid on COVAX, is the country that makes the biggest contribution to the international fight against COVID-19. He noted that the United States has so far supplied more than 23 million doses of vaccines and approximately $160 million in aid to ASEAN member countries to combat COVID-19.
He also announced that the US plans to provide $500,000 to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund to support life-saving vaccines and will continue to support the ASEAN Secretariat to develop an ASEAN Public Health Emergency Coordination System.
After expressing his concerns about the military coup in Burma, the US Secretary of State urged ASEAN to take joint action to encourage the military to end the violence and release those who were wrongfully detained, as well as re-establish Burma’s path to democracy:
“ASEAN’s leadership is also needed to address the military coup in Burma. In my meetings this week, I again called for ASEAN to urge the military to end the violence, restore Burma’s democratic transition, and release all those unjustly detained.” he said.
The military coup in Myanmar, which is an ASEAN member, also caused reactions to ASEAN by the international community.
Following his video talk with ASEAN chair Brunei, Blinken tweeted: “… ASEAN is key to the future of the Indo-Pacific.” In a separate statement he said that he welcomed ASEAN’s appointment of a Bruneian diplomat – Erywan Yusof, as special envoy to Myanmar, tasked with facilitating dialogue between the military rulers and their opponents.
At the gathering, the US official clarified that the US supports international law and standards to resolve geopolitical challenges in Indo-Pacific, including the South China Sea; he emphasized that the US seeks enhanced maritime cooperation to create a safer zone.
Meeting with Indonesia
Antony Blinken announced during the summit on August 3 that his nation has initiated a “strategic dialogue” with Indonesia. In the meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, the US Secretary of State announced that he is determined to work together with Indonesia in the fight against COVID-19 and climate change, as well as to improve bilateral economic relations.
Both sides have openly expressed their agreement on the strategic partnership. The US Secretary of State expressed the decision for dialogue between the two states was agreed upon a few years ago, only to actualise in 2021.
Blinken said: “Indonesia is a strong democratic partner to the US; we are working together on so many different fronts.” By adding Washington’s appreciation of Jakarta’s strong voice within ASEAN, he stated that the US looks forward to discussing regional issues and is excited to develop commercial partnerships with Indonesia. Moreover, Blinken emphasised that the US is keen on Indonesia’s G20 leadership next year.
On the other hand Indonesian MFA Marsudi highlighted that strengthening ties with Indonesia, the largest country and economy of ten-membered ASEAN, will be in favour of the USA in terms of “the US increasing engagement in the region.” She said:
“It is my hope, and the Indonesian government’s, to advance the bilateral relationship with the US from health to SDGs [sustainable development goals], from education, to economy, and beyond.”
Blinken and Marsudi both “expressed shared views on maritime security” and promised to “defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and continuing collaboration in cybersecurity and preventing cybercrime.”
The Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Friends of the Mekong Ministerial
On August 5, the US Secretary of State A. Blinken chaired The Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Friends of the Mekong Ministerials. The Friends of the Mekong include the United States, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Australia, the EU, the Republic of Korea, Japan, New Zealand, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Mekong River Commission Secretariat. In addition, the ASEAN Secretariat, India, and the United Kingdom also attended as observers.
Blinken highlighted the importance of cooperation between the Mekong region and the US as follows:
“The Mekong-US Partnership is putting into action President Biden’s view that we can only meet today’s accelerating global challenges by working together. As we combat the pandemic and recharge our economies, Mekong-region countries can count on the United States and the Friends of the Mekong.”
Blinken urged the Friends of the Mekong to take immediate action to hold the Burmese military regime accountable to ASEAN’s five-point agreement. He called for joint action, as in the assembly with ASEAN Foreign Ministers, to put pressure on the Burmese military regime to end the violence, release those wrongfully detained, and return Burma to the path of democracy.
To summarize, the results of the meetings met the expectations. It is possible to say that the strategic evaluations about the increased interest of the USA in the regional nations are appropriate. Most probably, the USA will continue to communicate with the region closely in the future.