| 27 September 2021, Monday |

U.S Top Diplomat Blinken to court Southeast Asia in virtual meetings next week

A senior state department source said on Saturday that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet digitally with Southeast Asian officials every day next week as Washington tries to demonstrate the region that it is a priority while still dealing with the Myanmar situation.

For five days, the top US diplomat will participate in virtual meetings, including annual meetings of the ASEAN’s ten foreign ministers and other nations, as well as separate meetings of the Lower Mekong sub-region countries Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.

“I think it’s a clear statement of our commitment to the region,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Reuters, said.

In recent years, top US officials have not consistently attended ASEAN meetings, and more junior officials have been dispatched to the region’s summits.

The virtual sessions came after the Biden administration was accused of paying insufficient attention to the region of over 600 million people in its early days, which is frequently eclipsed by neighboring economic superpower China, which the government sees as its primary foreign policy problem.

But that has been partly addressed by recent visits to the region. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Vietnam and the Philippines this week, and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam.

“That steady flow of high-level engagement is going to pay dividends. It’s noticed,” the official said, adding that countries in the region “notice when we don’t show up and that’s when you start hearing some complaining maybe about not taking them seriously or taking them for granted.”

The official said that donations of COVID-19 vaccines to the region had been a “game changer in terms of how our image is perceived.”

On Sunday, the United States shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam and it has sent doses to other Southeast Asian countries too, but an agreement it reached in March with Japan and Australia and India to provide a billion doses to the region stalled due to an Indian export ban

By mid-next week the United States will have donated 23 million doses to countries in the region, which is experiencing a surge of the coronavirus with vaccination rates well below countries in the West, the official said.

But none of those doses have gone to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where military generals staged a coup on Feb. 1 and detained elected leaders including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking sanctions from Washington and other Western capitals.

The meetings next week will see Blinken in the same virtual meetings as representatives of Myanmar’s military government, but the official said rather than bestowing legitimacy on those officials, this was an opportunity to get messages to the military government.

“We’re not prepared to walk away from ASEAN because of the bad behavior of a group of generals in Burma,” the official said, adding that U.S. officials were also engaging with the National Unity Government that opposes the military government there.