US Eyes ASEAN Cooperation to Push Back Against China in Blinken’s Visit

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Indonesia next week for talks with the Southeast Asian allies as the United States seeks to push back against China’s “coercive” actions in the disputed South China Sea.

Mr. Blinken will travel to Indonesia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers summit after concluding his trip to the United Kingdom and Lithuania, where he will join President Joe Biden for NATO meetings, a top U.S. official said Friday.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said that Mr. Blinken will hold multilateral engagements with ASEAN allies and partners to discuss economic cooperation, the ongoing crisis in Burma, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Mr. Kritenbrink said Washington aims to strengthen partnerships with the 10-member bloc to push back against “an upward trend of unhelpful, coercive, and irresponsible Chinese actions in the South China Sea.”

The countries shared a common view that all claimants of the South China Sea should adhere to international law when asserting their maritime claims and work towards peaceful resolutions, he said.

However, Mr. Kritenbrink made clear that the United States does not expect the countries to choose sides but rather to ensure that all countries have the ability to make their own sovereign decisions.

“It’s not a matter of getting countries on board with the U.S. view,” he told reporters. “It’s a matter of working with our ASEAN partners to advance our shared view and vision for the region, and to push back on behavior that runs counter to that vision and to those principles, including the many irresponsible acts that we’ve seen carried out by China over the last several years and in the last several weeks.”

Beijing claims much of the South China Sea as its own territory under its so-called nine-dash line despite competing claims from neighboring countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds ASEAN presidency this year, has said that ASEAN rejects any conflict in the Indo-Pacific and urged all parties to adhere to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“All claims that have no basis should not take place,” Mr. Widodo told a Malaysian broadcaster on May 8. “[The key is to] obey the international law. ASEAN will continue to push toward stability in the area.”

Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea dispute. However, Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over certain areas in the sea overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship with bow number 5201 blocks Philippine Coast Guard ship BRP Malapascua as it maneuvers to enter the mouth of the Second Thomas Shoal locally known as Ayungin Shoal at the South China Sea on April 23, 2023. (Aaron Favila/AP Photo)

Raymond Powell, a former U.S. Air Force official, described the South China Sea as a “hotbed of gray zone activity,” where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “can act without being directly seen, or noticed, or publicly held accountable.”

“When it’s a gray zone activity, generally speaking, the message is to the government of the country involved, and the message is: ‘You don’t want to escalate this. You want to have your relationship with China be as uncomplicated as possible. So now that you know we’re the jurisdiction here, keep this between us,’” Mr. Powell, a fellow at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told Radio Free Asia on July 4.

Publicizing such incidents would impose a reputational cost on China for engaging in such conduct, although some nations may choose to remain silent and ultimately normalize a gray zone activity, he said.

“The more you normalize the gray zone activity, the more they simply become expected, and eventually you will normalize yourself right out of all of your own legal and internationally lawful rights to your own exclusive economic zone,” Mr. Powell said.

“So every time they sail through your waters and do a survey or a patrol, or they harass your oil and gas operations, or they stop your fisherfolk from fishing, and you acquiesce, it brings into normalcy the fact that you are no longer in charge of your own waters,” he added.

The CCP has been behaving more aggressively in the South China Sea in recent months, as evidenced by the presence of more than 100 Chinese militia maritime vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in April.

In February, the Philippine Coast Guard reported that a Chinese coast guard vessel used a “military-grade laser” against its ship in the Ayungin Shoal to impede a resupply mission, temporarily blinding its crew.

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