The bottom line in Blinken’s foray into Southeast Asia

News: Both China and the U.S. are trying to attract the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries to their side. The US wants to overcome the Chinese domination in the ASEAN by pitching the issue of ASEAN Centrality and by countering China’s aggressive rise.

How the US is employing the ASEAN centrality tactics to attract South Asian nations?

In his speech at Universitas Indonesia on December 14, Mr. Blinken laid out the five core principles shaping the American strategy of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Alongside, he also underlined the mechanisms that the U.S. is adopting to implement these core principles.

He also stressed the following concerns made by ASEAN nations about China’s aggressive actions. For example,

-Claiming open seas as their own,

-Distorting open markets through subsidies to its state-run companies,

-Denying the exports or revoking deals for countries whose policies it does not agree with,

-Engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities.

How the US is trying to counter China’s rise directly in the Indo-Pacific?

The US is trying to counter China mainly in two areas. One is the South China Sea and the second is the investment in the infrastructure development of Southeast Asian countries.

1. South China Sea

The U.S. has continued its Freedom of Navigation Operations in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to challenge unlawful maritime claims by China.

The US has also brought up the 2016 international tribunal ruling which had rejected the Chinese nine-dash-line claims.

2. Infrastructure development

Through infrastructural investments under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has attracted many ASEAN nations. For instance, Chinese investments have driven countries such as Cambodia and Laos to do China’s bidding in the ASEAN, even at the cost of compromising ASEAN’s unity.

To counter this, the US has reiterated that it remains committed to closing the infrastructure gap.

The US has pointed out that the members of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) have provided more than $48 billion in government-backed financing for infrastructure for the region.

Further, the U. S is promising to do more under the Build Back Better World initiative and the Blue Dot Network.

The U.S. is also trying to showcase a comprehensive economic framework in the Indo-Pacific.

What is the way forward?

Providing proper alternative models of investments for development in sectors such as infrastructure, digital economy, supply chain, and health for the Southeast Asian nations will be critical.

The economic framework, investment plans, and promises outlined by Mr. Blinken need to be made operational quickly if the US is to show that it is indeed serious about sustained commitment toward the Indo-Pacific.

Source: This post is based on the article “The bottom line in Blinken’s foray into Southeast Asia” published in The Hindu on 5th   Jan 2022.

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