U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Liverpool for a series of in-person meetings with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as part of a December 9-17 trip that also will take him to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hawaii.
The top U.S. diplomat was greeted Friday evening by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss ahead of two days of talks between Group of Seven foreign and development ministers. The Group of Seven includes the world's wealthiest democracies and is known informally as the G-7.
Blinken also met Friday with Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a politician from the environmentalist Greens party.
Blinken’s trip is part of a U.S. effort to further advance its “strategic partnership” with ASEAN as President Joe Biden’s administration aims to begin a new “Indo Pacific Economic Framework” in early 2022.
The summit marks the first time ASEAN countries have been included in the G-7 foreign and development ministers meeting, being held in Liverpool.
The top diplomats are expected to discuss China's efforts to increase its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as Russia's troop buildup in Ukraine and the global coronavirus pandemic.
Blinken is scheduled to meet with some of his counterparts from the Southeast Asian bloc during the gathering before heading to the Asia-Pacific rim next week.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, he will deliver remarks on the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and underscore the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership.
Regional economic framework
“The secretary will have an opportunity to discuss the president’s newly announced Indo-Pacific economic framework,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters in a call briefing. "President Biden is committed to elevating U.S.-ASEAN engagement to unprecedented levels."
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation. Kritenbrink told VOA on Wednesday that Blinken would attend a vaccine clinic hosted by the largest faith-based NGO in Indonesia.
Blinken then will head to Malaysia and Thailand, where he will attempt to advance U.S. ties and address shared challenges, including battling COVID-19, building resilient supply chains, addressing the climate crisis, and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
The State Department said Blinken would "address the worsening crisis" in Myanmar in each country during his lengthy trip. The military in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, seized power in a February coup, overthrowing the civilian government.
U.S. officials had indicated the new Indo-Pacific economic framework would include broad partnerships with nations in the region in critical areas such as the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency and clean energy.
"The Indo-Pacific region is a critical part of our economy. It's not just that it accounts for over half of the world's population and 60% of global GDP [gross domestic product]," Jose Fernandez, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said in a recent briefing.
"Seven of the top 15 U.S. export markets are in the Indo-Pacific. Two-way trade between the U.S. and the region was over $1.75 trillion," he added.
There are, however, concerns that the United States is lagging behind China in deepening economic and strategic ties with ASEAN.
"ASEAN countries want more from Washington on the economic side, but the Biden administration's proposed Indo-Pacific economic framework is likely to fall short of their expectations," said Susannah Patton, a research fellow in the foreign policy and defense program at the United States Studies Center in Sydney.
"After RCEP enters into force, there will be two megatrade pacts in Asia — RCEP and CPTPP — and the United States is in neither," said Patton, referring to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"China's application to join CPTPP, a vehicle that was designed to promote U.S. economic ties with Asia, highlights Washington's absence," Patton told VOA on Wednesday. Signed in 2018, the CPTPP is a free-trade agreement that includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.
In November 2020, 10 ASEAN member states and five additional countries (Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) signed the RCEP, representing around 30% of the world's GDP and population. RCEP will come into force in January.
Others said the new Indo-Pacific economic framework appears to be not just about traditional trade, as Washington is signaling strategic interests in the region.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.