US’ future lies in Indo-Pacific region, say experts

‘US move to leave Afghanistan partly driven by country’s efforts to strengthen its position in region’.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AA) – The US’ future lies in the Indo-Pacific, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent visits to Singapore and Vietnam are part of US efforts to strengthen its position in the region, according to foreign policy experts.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Ramadhan Muhaimin, a researcher at the Center for Peace and Defense Studies at Indonesia’s Al-Azhar University, said the visit by Harris was aimed at strengthening the US position in the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese domination.

Muhaimin said the US move to leave Afghanistan was partly driven by the country’s efforts to strengthen its position in the region.

The expert noted that the Indo-Pacific is the “future region” for the US as the country’s economy is dependent on that part of the globe.

“From Kamala Harris’s statement in Singapore, it’s very clear that her visit to Southeast Asia, in this case Vietnam and Singapore, aims to strengthen the United States’ position in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

The Indo-Pacific region refers to the countries located geographically in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean regions, which is home to 60% of the world’s population with a total GDP of nearly $52 trillion.

During her speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Harris called out China’s continued intimidation and unlawful claims to large parts of the disputed South China Sea.

Harris said those unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations.

South China Sea conflict

Meanwhile, in her visit to Vietnam, Harris offered more visits by US warships during her talks with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, reiterating that China’s expansion is dangerous.

Muhaimin said the US move to approach Vietnam was due to the country’s intense conflict with China in the South China Sea.

“According to reports, Vietnam formed a maritime militia in the South China Sea, numbering around 70,000 fishermen empowered by the government. This was to balance the intensity of Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea,” he said.

Beijing claims roughly 90% of the total area defined by a map with an ambiguous “dash-line” published in 1947, which sparked tensions with several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei Darussalam.

Muhaimin said after the visit to Singapore and Vietnam, the US would continue its geopolitical tour in the Indo-Pacific with a different pattern of diplomatic approaches.

“It might be a military diplomacy approach, a diplomatic visit approach, vaccine diplomacy, economic diplomacy, or others,” he added.

In August, Indonesia and the US held a large-scale joint military exercise involving 3,700 troops from both countries.

“Although it was a routine exercise between Indonesian and the US Army, it was held on a larger scale which provoked similar drills between China and Russia,” said Muhaimin.

In the past four years, the US remains the second-largest trade and investment partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The trade volume between the two parties increased by 39% from $211.8 billion to $294.6 billion from 2016 to 2020, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Support for ASEAN against China

On the contrary, an international relations observer from the University of Indonesia, Hikmahanto Juwana, said the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was unrelated to its competition with China.

“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is taking too long and the costs are too high,” Juwana told Anadolu Agency on Thursday.

According to the international law professor, Harris’ speeches in Singapore and Vietnam were a warning to China and a message for Southeast Asian countries not to be afraid when dealing with Beijing as they will have support from Washington.

“The US wants freedom of navigation and for countries in the Asia Pacific not to fall into China’s debt trap,” he said.

Juwana noted that Harris’ absence in Indonesia does not mean that the country is considered unimportant, saying the US under President Joe Biden’s administration has built cooperation with the country on a concrete level, not symbolic.

He said it was related to the ideology of Biden’s Democrat party, which promotes respect for human rights and democracy.

“For the constituents of the party, it is still difficult to believe that Indonesia has been free from the issue of human rights violations and democratization,” said Juwana, referring to former President Soeharto’s authoritarian era which lasted until the reformation period.

“Therefore, the Biden’s administration still sees Indonesia as important,” he continued.

Indonesia’s human rights record during 2019 was assessed as “declining” by the Human Rights Watch, mostly due to issues of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and assembly, the rights of women and girls, Papua province, environmental rights, and others.

Indonesia’s response

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said the government cannot make guesses about the considerations behind foreign visits by heads of state.

Faizasyah emphasized the importance of Indonesia to the US when Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi visited Washington DC in early August at the invitation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to hold a bilateral meeting amid the pandemic.

The spokesman said Marsudi became the first foreign minister from ASEAN member countries to hold an offline bilateral meeting with Blinken in Washington.

“The US secretary of state’s invitation to the Indonesian foreign minister explained two things, first the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries, and second, the US’ view on Indonesia’s strategic position and role in the region,” he added.

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