By Humeyra Pamuk
JAKARTA, Dec 13 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Indonesia on Monday, kicking off a visit to Southeast Asia aimed at strengthening ties in a region that has become a strategic battleground between Washington and Beijing.
In his first Southeast Asia trip since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January, Blinken will be in Malaysia and Thailand this week after visiting Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, where he will meet President Joko Widodo and will deliver a speech on U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy on Tuesday.
Southeast Asia is a key stage for a rivalry between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies, with a heated battle for influence as the Biden administration seeks to reconnect with a region to which U.S. commitment was questioned under President Donald Trump. nL8N2SU756
Blinken will pursue Biden’s aim of elevating engagement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc and discuss the president’s vision for an Indo-Pacific economic framework, a top U.S. diplomat for Asia said ahead of the trip. nL1N2ST1X6
The United States and Western allies are pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, a conduit for a third of global trade, and accuse its vast coastguard fleet of bullying countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia by disrupting energy and fishing activities.
China claims almost the entire sea as its own, and has rejected U.S. actions as meddling by an outside power.
The Biden administration sees closer engagement in Southeast Asia as vital to its efforts to push back against China’s growing power, but Trump’s withdrawal from a regional trade deal in 2017 has limited its ability to exert economic influence, while Beijing has sought to bolster its trade ties.
The administration has yet to spell out what exactly Biden’s envisaged economic framework will entail.
(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Martin Petty; Editing by Stephen Coates)
This article originally appeared on reuters.com