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Blinken warns China to stop ‘aggressive actions’ in first trip to Southeast Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a news conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Dec. 14. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Reuters)
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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first official visit to Southeast Asia to criticize China’s “aggressive actions” and encourage smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific to unite against Beijing’s assertiveness in the region.

Speaking at a university in the capital of Indonesia, Blinken said the Biden administration would work with allies and partners to defend the “rules-based order” against a rising China that he depicted as a threat to freedom of movement in the South China Sea, where an estimated $3 trillion of commerce flows every year.

“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,” Blinken said. “Countries across the region want this behavior to change — we do too.”

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Blinken’s criticisms of China in a region where it holds strong political and economic ties resembled some of the broadsides leveled by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, his predecessor in the Trump administration. But Blinken sought to strike a softer tone, insisting that Washington is not forcing countries to choose between the two superpowers.

“Individual countries will be able to choose their own path and their own partners,” he said.

Blinken is using his three-country swing through Southeast Asia, which will include stops in Malaysia and Thailand, as a means for spelling out the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Beijing has drawn criticism in the region for laying claim to much of the South China Sea, which is disputed by smaller countries in the region such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China has also moved military hardware into the waters and dismissed a 2016 international tribunal decision that refuted its historical claim there.

U.S.-China relations have plummeted in recent years due to differences over Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and the coronavirus pandemic. Blinken said the United States, which has more members of its military stationed in the Indo-Pacific than anywhere outside the contiguous United States, is committed to “peace and security” that is “vital to prosperity in the region.”

A key pillar of the Biden administration’s policy is to ensure the rights and freedoms of the people of the region, Blinken said.

But in promoting free and democratic governance, he was careful not to criticize corruption and anti-democratic practices of the countries on his tour, which he’s hoping to bring closer to Washington’s orbit.

During a news conference in Jakarta’s glitzy Fairmont hotel, Blinken was asked about whether he would give voice to anti-corruption and pro-democracy efforts in Thailand and Malaysia. The top U.S. diplomat dodged the question, saying, “we’ll have an opportunity in both places to address questions particular to those places when we’re there.”

Despite Blinken’s disciplined focus on Asia, the stop in Indonesia also brought a reminder of Washington’s high-stakes standoff with Russia over its military buildup on the border with Ukraine.

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When Blinken touched down in Jakarta on Monday, he shared the same tarmac as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s senior aide Nikolai Patrushev, whose plane parked nearby as he met separately with Indonesian officials.

“I noticed his plane on the runway next to ours when we landed,” said Blinken during the news conference. “I can’t or won’t speak to why anyone else might be here or what they’re doing.”

Blinken, who did not meet with Patrushev during the stop, was asked if he missed a diplomatic opportunity to address a crisis that has consumed Washington. He suggested that Washington first needed to consult with its partner Ukraine before serious discussions ensued with Moscow.

“We have a senior State Department official, Karen Donfried, who is now in Ukraine consulting with our Ukrainian partners,” he said.

“She’ll be going on to Moscow . . . to test” whether Moscow is serious about resolving the crisis in Ukraine, Blinken said.