US ratchets up Southeast Asia engagement as another senior diplomat visits Jakarta

General

The U.S. is going all out to woo ASEAN states in its effort to counter China in the region, through this week’s Jakarta visit by a senior Washington official – the second in as many months to Southeast Asia’s largest country.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said he was in Southeast Asia in his new role as part of a diplomatic push by the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitment to the region. His maiden visit in his new position comes close on the heels of a trip to the Indonesian capital by State Department Counselor Derek Chollett.

Kritenbrink, the former American ambassador to Vietnam, said he made Jakarta his initial stop in a four-nation regional tour “in recognition of the leadership role that Indonesia plays.”

“I came here with a really simple objective,” Kritenbrink told reporters at a media briefing Tuesday. Indonesia serves as the official liaison between the United States and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is headquartered in Jakarta.

“I want to further demonstrate the strength of America’s commitment to our strategic partnership with Indonesia, as well as America’s commitment to ASEAN centrality and its outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and our commitment to peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region, writ large.”

ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific says member-states must promote freedom, peace, stability and prosperity in the region, through a peaceful settlement of disputes, and through promoting the rule of law and rejecting the use of threats and force.

Kritenbrink expressed “fundamental concerns” about some of China’s actions, which he said could undermine the “rules-based international order.” He said Washington’s concerns include Beijing’s aggressiveness in the South and East China seas.

The U.S. diplomat also warned that competition between the U.S. and China would become increasingly fraught.

“We therefore believe we also need to have intense diplomacy, to make sure there’s not some kind of miscalculation that could lead to inadvertent conflict,” Kritenbrink said.

Southeast Asia has become a global geopolitical hotspot amid China’s increasing militarization and expansionism in the disputed South China Sea.

‘Supporting our partners’

Meanwhile, despite spats between many Southeast Asian nations and China over the strategic waterway, Washington will not force countries to pick sides in its rivalry with Beijing, Kritenbrink told reporters.

In recent months, Beijing’s verbal quarrels with Manila have escalated over Chinese ships in Philippine waters. Chinese vessels have also intruded into Malaysia’s maritime air space, the Malaysian Air Force said. And analysts say China has “illegally” parked research ships in Indonesia’s waters.

Still, “we’re not about forcing people to make a choice,” the U.S. diplomat said.

“We’re about supporting our partners and friends so that you have choices, [so] that you have the say over your sovereignty and over your sovereign decisions and that you’re free to make those choices,” Kritenbrink added, alluding to China’s intrusions in other nations’ waters.

China claims historical rights to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area roughly demarcated by a nine-dash line. Other claimants have rejected those claims and a 2016 international arbitration tribunal ruled that it had no legal basis.

Claimants include ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The other members of the bloc are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

While in Jakarta, Kritenbrink met with several Indonesian officials including Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar, Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin and Trade Minister Muhammad Luthfi.

After Indonesia, he was scheduled to make stops in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

‘US politics can once again change’

Despite recent trips to Southeast Asia by high-profile officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chollett, one regional analyst said Washington’s engagement may be short lived.

Both Harris and Austin, members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, skipped Indonesia, the region’s biggest and most populous country.

“Of course, the U.S.’ renewed interest in Southeast Asia cannot be separated from the U.S.-China rivalry,” Rizal Sukma, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“There is no guarantee that this U.S. engagement will be sustainable, because we have learned that U.S. politics can once again change, and its policy will change again.”

Rizal did not name anyone but he likely was referring to a four-year absence from the ASEAN leaders’ summits under the Trump administration. Biden attended the virtual summit last month.

Assistant Secretary of State Kritenbrink emphasized repeatedly that Washington was committed to Indonesia, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific. He said Southeast Asia should expect even more such visits.

“[Y]ou will continue to see, let’s put it this way, you will continue to see a number of senior American visitors from a range of our departments and agencies visit Indonesia,” he said.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Arif, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia, said Southeast Asia needed to be given more importance by Washington.

 “[A]visit by the Assistant Secretary of State cannot compensate for the lack of higher-level engagement,” he told BenarNews.

“Many still regret that Jakarta was skipped on previous tours of Southeast Asia by the vice president and members of the U.S. government.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.