Blinken to hold five days of virtual talks with Asean ministers this week

Mr Antony Blinken is expected to announce several measures to support Asean's fight against Covid-19 and its economic recovery. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken is committed to taking on an active role in the region as he meets virtually with South-east Asian ministers every day this week, said senior US officials on Monday (Aug 2).

He is expected to announce several measures to support Asean's fight against Covid-19 and its economic recovery, including expansions of programmes and partnerships the US already has with Asean, the two State Department officials told reporters in a briefing.

Washington has stepped up its engagement with South-east Asia of late, after a slow start which had prompted concerns that the US was distracted from the region and not doing enough to counter China there.

Mr Blinken, America's top diplomat, first met Asean foreign ministers at a virtual meeting last month, followed by Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin's trip to the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam last week. Vice-President Kamala Harris has announced a trip to the region as well later this month.

"Recent US government high-level engagement in the region is a testament to how important the Indo-Pacific is to us and underscores how much we prioritise our efforts in the region," said one official.

Mr Blinken will co-chair the US-Asean ministerial meeting and take part in the East Asia Summit and Asean Regional Forum meetings, which involve other dialogue partners including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Russia and New Zealand.

He co-hosted the second Mekong-US Partnership ministerial meeting on Monday (Aug 2), unveiled the partnership's four flagship projects, as well as noted the 4.5 million vaccine doses and over US$80 million (S$108 million) in US Covid-19 assistance.

The meeting involved countries in the Lower Mekong region - Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand - and other partners such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, as well as New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

Mr Blinken also urged the countries to take immediate action to hold the Myanmar regime accountable to the Asean five-point consensus on the Myanmar crisis.

"These upcoming Asean meetings and Secretary Blinken's attendance for five consecutive days illustrate how focused he is on playing an active role in the region," said the official.

Mr Blinken will reaffirm America's commitment to Asean centrality and address pressing issues facing the region, including access to Covid-19 vaccines and the region's economic recovery, the climate crisis, the military coup in Myanmar and China's coercion in the South China Sea and the Mekong sub-region, said the official.

Mr Blinken will also discuss cybersecurity, the digital economy, human rights violations in China and America's commitment to people-to-people ties, he added.

The US has so far donated more than 20 million vaccine doses to South-east Asia, with an eye to countering China's vaccine diplomacy in the region.

America's strategic competition with China - its biggest foreign policy challenge - will loom large throughout the talks, with Mr Blinken expected to call for more vaccine transparency from China.

At the same time, the US is "very attuned to" Asean's desire to not have to choose between the US and China, said the official.

"We want to engage Asean for Asean's sake," he said. "We've never asked any country to choose between the US and China. We fully recognise that these countries have to have good relations with China."

He added: "We want to present the countries of South-east Asia with options, and to show them that we're acting in good faith and as a good, trustworthy partner that they can depend on."

The military coup in Myanmar, which Mr Blinken will address during each ministerial meeting, will also be high on America's agenda.

The issue threatens the stability of the entire region, said the official.

He added that Mr Blinken will urge Asean to hold the military junta accountable to Asean's five-point consensus on Myanmar, to name and send its special envoy to Myanmar, to engage all stakeholders, and for the junta to immediately end the violence, restore democratic governance and release those unjustly detained.

Separately, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Washington on Monday (Aug 2). The White House announced that Washington will give Jakarta another US$30 million (S$40.6 million) in Covid-19 assistance, bringing the total US assistance to Indonesia to more than US$65 million since the start of the pandemic.

On Monday, the White House also sent President Joe Biden's nomination of Internet philanthropist Jonathan Kaplan as ambassador to Singapore to the Senate.

The move is a crucial next step to filling the ambassadorship, which has been vacant since 2017. The Senate will have to confirm Mr Kaplan to the post.

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