US Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened talks on Sunday in Thailand as part of a renewed US effort to engage Southeast Asia, a key area of competition with China, and as he seeks new ideas on how to restore democracy in Myanmar.
Mr Blinken began the day with Deputy Prime Minister Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, who opened a meeting with a moment of silence for Japan’s slain former prime minister Shinzo Abe, an ally of both countries.
He will call on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha after the talks with his Thai counterparts, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry.
The US secretary of state is visiting Thailand, America’s oldest ally in Asia, days after a stop by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who has embarked on a more extensive tour of Southeast Asia in which he has highlighted Beijing’s lavish infrastructure spending.
The United States has identified China, with its authoritarian system and burgeoning technological and military resources, as its pre-eminent global rival but both nations have recently sought to lower the temperature, with Mr Wang and Mr Blinken meeting Saturday for an unusually long five hours in Bali.
Mr Blinken, before flying to Bangkok late Saturday, said that his talks with Mr Wang were “constructive” and added that the world’s two largest economies wanted to prevent their competition from getting out of hand.
Mr Blinken said the US was promoting the “highest standards” in Southeast Asia and was not “saddling countries with debt” — a common criticism over Beijing’s initially attractive loans.
“My hope would be that if, as China continues to engage itself in all of these efforts, that it engages in a race to the top, that it raise its game,” Mr Blinken told reporters in Bali.
“That would actually benefit everyone.”
President Joe Biden invited Southeast Asian leaders in May to Washington to demonstrate the US commitment to the region, even as the administration focuses on countering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Critics have said the US is bringing comparatively little to the table. Washington is pushing out $40 billion, mostly in weapons, for Ukraine, and China last year promised $1.5 billion for Southeast Asia.
The Biden administration counters that flashy announcements of state funds have never been the US forte and that it is prioritising cooperation in concrete areas such as public health, Covid-19 vaccination and education — areas that Mr Blinken will highlight in Bangkok.
Logjam on Myanmar
Mr Blinken also met with Thailand-based youth representatives from Myanmar, where the military in February 2021 ousted the elected government, slamming the door on a decade-long transition to democracy nurtured by the United States.
Mr Biden, who has put a priority on championing democracy, responded by imposing a slew of sanctions on the junta but has had limited success in pressuring a powerful military that is historically suspicious of outside influence.
Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, more than a year ago put forward a plan in which the junta will engage the opposition but there has been no progress.
In an unusual common stance with the US, Mr Wang visited Myanmar last week and also encouraged the military to speak to opponents.
Mr Blinken will seek to “increase pressure on the regime to cut off its sources of funding” and work to “compel Burma to return to a path of democracy,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, the top US diplomat for East Asia, using Myanmar’s former name.
Mr Kritenbrink called Thailand an “important partner” on democracy in Myanmar.
But the trip also marks a continued normalisation of the record of Thailand, where Gen Prayut seized power in a 2014 coup.
Gen Prayut became prime minister in 2019 elections and public criticism in Thailand has become increasingly open, bringing the kingdom back into US good graces.
Mr Blinken was set to visit Bangkok late last year but postponed his trip after a Covid-19 outbreak in his delegation.