By Manik Mehta
NEW YORK, Dec 13 – Amid the recent charm offensive by China to court the ASEAN states, with Chinese President Xi Jinping assuring during a virtual conference with the ASEAN members that Beijing had no intention to bully or seek domination in Southeast Asia, the U.S. has also launched its own initiative to woo Southeast Asia.
Some of the ASEAN states have claims to islands in the South China Sea where China has built up a strong naval presence ignoring the claims of other states.
As the rivalry between the two – American diplomats use the euphemism “competition” – gets increasingly acrimonious, both sides are building up their relations with countries of the region. This will also be the major reason behind the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to three ASEAN member states, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand from December 13 to 16. With doubts being raised about U.S. leadership in the region, particularly after the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington emphasized its “deep commitment” to Southeast Asia before Blinken started his ASEAN tour. .
U.S. experts on China also note ASEAN’s growing frustration against China’s growing assertiveness in the region, particularly in regard to claims by some ASEAN states to islands in the South China Sea. To sweeten the bitter pill, China held out the prospect of providing Covid-19 assistance and keeping supply chains operating on a fast track basis. It has also pledged to expeditiously work on infrastructure projects, some of which face financial difficulties. Beijing is intensifying its efforts to wean away the ASEAN states from tilting towards America and, at least, remain neutral in the U.S.-China rivalry.
Xi’s charm offensive does not seem to have convinced many experts. Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific security at the Institute for International Strategic Studies in Singapore has said that China had repeatedly demonstrated its determination to pursue its claims in the South China Sea against smaller nations. Thus Xi’s reconciliatory words were “at odds with China’s actions”. Other experts contend that China’s charm offensive with ASEAN was motivated by the heightened security arrangements in the region by the U.S. and its allies.
Ahead of Blinken’s visit, Daniel J. Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who had earlier visited ASEAN, briefed journalists that Secretary Blinken’s trip to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand was taking place following recent visits by Commerce Secretary Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Tai. Kritenbrink said that Blinken’s visit demonstrated the Biden administration’s “sustained engagement with the Indo-Pacific countries”. The three countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, are essential components of the U.S. administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Blinken’s trip would focus on areas such as security, health, economy and people-to-people ties, besides addressing the worsening crisis in Myanmar. .
Southeast Asia has become a strategic battleground between the United States and China. The Biden administration sees Southeast Asia as vital to its efforts to push back against China’s growing assertiveness, but the lack of a formal structure for economic engagement since former President Donald Trump quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in 2017 has constricted Washington’s ability to wield greater influence on the ASEAN region.
“I anticipate that the Secretary will again reiterate our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, our commitment to principles such as freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, and our belief that all disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. Our desire is to support the rules-based order from which all countries have benefit – have benefitted, and to ensure that all countries are able to freely make their own choices unburdened by coercion,” Kritenbrink said.
Blinken will also highlight U.S. commitments to help the region emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic; President Biden has pledged to provide 1.2 billion vaccine doses worldwide.
Describing Indonesia as a leader in the ASEAN region, Kritenbrink called it a strategic partner. “It’s one of the reasons why the Secretary is travelling to Jakarta,” he said, adding that “we are delighted that Indonesia will host the G-20 (in 2022)”; Indonesia will be the U.S. country coordinator for ASEAN in the next three years.
Washington is equally keen to move Malaysia out of China’s orbit of influence. Indeed, American and Malaysian armed forces recently participated in the Exercise Keris Strike 2021 held at Kedah. Keris Strike is an annual bilateral exercise backed by the U.S. Army Pacific and hosted by the Malaysian Armed Forces.
Another major bilateral exercise has been the Maritime Training Activity (MTA) 2021 which ended recently following eight days of sea engagements that enhanced collaboration between the Royal Malaysian Navy and the U.S. Navy and focused on shared maritime security challenges at the region.
With participation of the littoral combat ship USS Tulsa, the exercise focused on the full spectrum of naval capabilities, and featured cooperative evolutions highlighting the ability of Malaysia and the U.S. to work together towards the common goal of ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Cyber security will also figure in U.S.-ASEAN talks.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this correspondent that Chinese hackers had been very likely targeting government and private sector organizations in Southeast Asia.
Hackers have used custom malware families such as FunnyDream and Chinoxy which are not publicly available and are used by certain groups believed to be Chinese state-sponsored, according to Insikt Group, the threat research division of Massachusetts-based Recorded Future..