U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday arrived in Liverpool, England, to begin a series of in-person meetings with foreign ministers regarding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as part of a December 9-17 trip that also will take him to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hawaii.
The top U.S. diplomat will meet Friday with G-7 leaders, including British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
Blinken’s trip is part of a U.S. effort to further advance its “strategic partnership” with ASEAN as President Joe Biden’s administration aims to begin a new “Indo Pacific Economic Framework” in early 2022.
For the first time, ASEAN members are invited to participate in a two-day G-7 foreign and development ministers’ meeting being held in Liverpool beginning Friday. The G-7 is the grouping of the world’s wealthiest democracies, known more formally as the Group of Seven.
Blinken is scheduled to meet with some of his counterparts from the southeast Asian bloc during the G-7 gathering before heading to the Asia-Pacific rim next week.
In Jakarta, he will deliver remarks on the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership.
“The Secretary will have an opportunity to discuss the president’s newly announced Indo-Pacific economic framework,” State Department’s Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters in a call briefing. “President Biden is committed to elevating U.S.-ASEAN engagement to unprecedented levels,” he added.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. Kritenbrink told VOA on Wednesday that Blinken will attend a vaccine clinic hosted by the largest faith-based NGO in Indonesia.
Blinken then heads to Malaysia and Thailand where he will attempt to advance U.S. ties and address shared challenges, including COVID-19, building resilient supply chains, the climate crisis, and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The State Department said Blinken will “address the worsening crisis in Burma” in each country during the lengthy trip. Burma is also known as Myanmar, where the military seized power in a February coup, overthrowing the civilian government.
U.S. officials had indicated the new “Indo Pacific Economic Framework would include broad partnerships with nations in the region on critical areas, including the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency and clean energy.
“The Indo-Pacific region is a critical part of our economy. It’s not just that it accounts for over half of the world’s population and 60% of global GDP,” Jose Fernandez, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, said in a recent briefing.
“Seven of the top 15 U.S. export markets are in the Indo-Pacific. Two-way trade between the U.S. and the region was over $1.75 trillion,” he added.
There are, however, concerns that the United States is lagging behind China in deepening economic and strategic ties with ASEAN.
“ASEAN countries want more from Washington on the economic side, but the Biden administration's proposed Indo-Pacific economic framework is likely to fall short of their expectations,” said Susannah Patton, a research fellow in the foreign policy and defense program at the United States Studies Center in Sydney.
“After RCEP enters into force, there will be two mega-trade pacts in Asia: RCEP and CPTPP, and the United States is in neither,” said Patton, referring to a trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as well as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“China's application to join CPTPP, a vehicle that was designed to promote U.S. economic ties with Asia, highlights Washington's absence,” Patton told VOA Wednesday. The CPTPP is a free trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam that was signed in 2018.
In November 2020, 10 ASEAN member states and five additional countries (Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) signed the RCEP, representing around 30% of the world’s gross domestic product and population. RCEP will come into force in January.
Others said the new Indo-Pacific economic framework appears to be not just about traditional trade, as Washington is signaling strategic interests in the region.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.