US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Photo: AFP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s belated visit to Southeast Asia, where he was scheduled to meet leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, was cut short Thursday after a member of his entourage tested positive for Covid-19. 

“We learned this morning, through our routine PCR testing, that a member of our traveling press pool tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, which expressed the US top diplomat’s “deep regret” for having to skip a scheduled meeting with his Thai counterparts out of “an abundance of caution.” 

While confirming that Blinken’s senior staff tested negative, there was a possibility that other members of the delegation may have been exposed. With the new Omicron variant raging across the region, the prospect of a 10-day quarantine for top US diplomats proved prohibitive.

This meant that Thailand, a US treaty ally, has yet to host a cabinet-level official under the Biden administration. It marked an anticlimactic end to what was supposed to be the capstone of the Biden administration’s charm offensive across the region.

Earlier this year, a technical glitch disrupted Blinken’s scheduled online meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts, who felt snubbed by Biden’s hyperactive diplomatic engagement with major allies in Europe, the Middle East and Northeast Asia. 

Blinken’s visit was purposefully designed to assuage concerns among key partners, which were skipped by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, who dropped by Singapore and Vietnam, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who met his counterparts in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. 

Before his regional tour was caught short, Blinken managed to meet top leaders in Indonesia, the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as in Malaysia.

His first and most consequential visit was to Jakarta, where he arrived only hours after Kremlin Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who was on his own regional tour amid burgeoning defense relations with Indonesia.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev was on his own regional tour. Photo: AFP / Viktor Tolochko / Sputnik

In Indonesia, Blinken made it clear that the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 60% of global economic output and covers key US partners from India in the west to Australia in the south and Japan to the east, will be a key priority for the Biden admiration. 

“We all have a stake in ensuring that the world’s most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all,” said Blinken in his speech in Jakarta. “This is good for people across the region, and it’s good for Americans, because history shows that when this vast region is free and open, America is more secure and more prosperous,” he added, underscoring the centrality of Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. 

Blinken also emphasized the US commitment to a multipolar “rules-based” order in the region, since “the Indo-Pacific is its own region” beyond the dictates of any superpower.

The top US diplomat was quick to underscore the Biden administration’s commitment to the region by emphasizing the donation of up to 300 million US-made Covid-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific, a third of the US total.

Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines were among the biggest recipients in the world.

Zeroing in on China, the main theme of his address at the University of Indonesia, Blinken vowed to continue billions of dollars of US investments in regional public health infrastructure “with no strings attached.”

He also underscored the US commitment to enhance climate change mitigation and adaptation mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific as well as enhance data privacy amid a boom in the digital economy, “because if we don’t shape them, others [China] will.”

Blinken minced no words on China’s real and perceived threats to regional security. 

“That’s why there’s so much concern from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia, and from the Mekong River to the Pacific Islands, about Beijing’s aggressive actions. Claiming open seas as their own. Distorting open markets through subsidies to its state-run companies,” he said.

Chinese frigates in formation during a maritime training exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA / Zhang Bin

“Denying exports, revoking deals for countries whose policies it does not agree with. Engaging in illegal unreported and unregulated fishing activities. Countries across the region want this behavior to change. We do too,” Blinken added.

While emphasizing the need for “defending the rules-based order” that is “free from coercion, free from intimidation,” Blinken made it clear that the US does not seek a new Cold War.

Reminding the audience of the cordial conversation between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last month, he emphasized how “we [the two superpowers] share a profound responsibility to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict.”

“We don’t want conflict in the Indo-Pacific,” he said, dispensing with fears of either a “US-centric region or a China-centric region” in a highly dynamic Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, Blinken leveraged his Southeast Asian visit to reinforce America’s leadership in the region on two fronts. 

First of all, Blinken emphasized the need for fortifying America’s “unmatched system of alliances” based on the doctrine of “integrated deterrence,” namely “more closely weaving together all our instruments of national power, diplomacy, military intelligence.”

In particular, he underscored the US commitment to forge stronger connections with regional treaty allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand, especially on the eve of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal, which Biden described as a “historic, new security cooperation agreement.”

But defense relations between the US and its traditional Southeast Asian allies such as Thailand and the Philippines have been strained in recent years amid disagreements over China and human rights issues.

Thailand was noticeably absent among the invitees to the first “Summit for Democracy” in the US, while the Philippines has dragged its feet on implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US. 

Blinken spoke of President Joe Biden’s conciliatory conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

To make matters worse, Blinken was forced to skip Thailand during his latest visit due to the Covid-19 infection among his entourage. He has also yet to visit the Philippines. New strategic partners such as Singapore also remain skeptical. 

During an interview with Bloomberg last month, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed some skepticism by claiming that while “we all want to work together with the US … I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.”

Second, Blinken also pitched a “comprehensive Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” which would boost the US economic footprint in the region, especially in key areas such as the digital economy, supply chain resilience and green infrastructure development. 

Back in 2020, private US investments in Southeast Asia states amounted to US$328.5 billion , far larger than China’s. But when it comes to trade, the US is playing catch up. In 2020, China-ASEAN trade amounted to $685 billion, almost twice as much as that between the US and its Southeast Asian counterparts. 

Thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is also rapidly expanding its infrastructure footprint in the region, with Laos having just completed its $6 billion high-speed railway and Vietnam opening its first metro line in Hanoi. Both mega-projects were done in tandem with Chinese companies.

But Blinken tried to push back against the BRI by raising concerns over quality and good governance standards. 

“We’re hearing increasing concerns from government officials, industry and labor communities in the Indo-Pacific about what happens when infrastructure isn’t done right, like when it’s awarded through opaque corrupt processes, or built by overseas companies that import their own labor, extract resources, pollute the environment and drive communities into debt,” Blinken said during his Southeast Asian tour.

“The region has told us loud and clear that it wants us to do more [on the economic front],” Blinken admitted, vowing “we’ll meet that call.” Yet, the Biden administration has yet to provide any concrete economic strategy in the region, including on the proposed Digital Free Trade Agreement in the Indo-Pacific.

As Jonathan R Stromseth, an expert at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times: “The Achilles’ heel of US policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the US in trade and infrastructure investment.” 

Overall, Blinken’s visit was successful in reviving US-ASEAN relations, bringing in a much-needed measure of mutual respect and sincerity to bilateral relations, but it has also raised huge expectations about the future of the Biden administration’s strategy in Asia.