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Tensions with China have U.S. working to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip through Southeast Asia this week caps a series of senior U.S. visitors pledging to recommit the U.S. to the region, a region that has been hit hard by the pandemic and is seeking greater economic engagement. And the pledge comes as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In laying out the Biden administration's vision for the Indo-Pacific, Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned Beijing sparingly in his address this week in Jakarta, all the while signaling that the U.S. is a better bet than China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We all have a stake in ensuring that the world's most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all. This is good for people across the region. It's good for Americans.

MCCARTHY: But National University of Singapore distinguished fellow Kishore Mahbubani says the region is less interested in talk of freedom and openness and more about Southeast Asia's material needs. Mahbubani says the U.S. has focused its attention on defense and security while China has stolen the march on trade and economic development. He says China now conducts twice the amount of trade with the region's 10 economies than the U.S. does - $650 billion worth.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: So at the end of the day, that's the most important statistic to watch - not how many submarines you have in the region. It's how much trade you do with the region.

MCCARTHY: Blinken says the U.S. will close the gap in infrastructure. But Mahbubani notes that China is far ahead of the United States in building needed roads and railways with Chinese money and technology, from Indonesia to Laos.

MAHBUBANI: There's now a new high-speed train in Laos. It started in Laos. It's one of the poorest countries in the world. It now has a faster train than anything the United States has, which is remarkable.

MCCARTHY: That's not to say countries are not concerned about the rise of China. They are, says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a member of the Indonesia Academy of Science. But she says Southeast Asian countries have to deal with China for better or worse. It's there for the long haul, she says. Whereas the U.S. has often been seen as absent.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR: So there's this perception that, you know, the U.S. is distracted quite often, inconsistent and doesn't have long staying power.

MCCARTHY: Blinken's visit was intended to demonstrate that the U.S. is back and in listening mode. Anwar says in stops in Indonesia and Malaysia, Blinken would likely have heard that Southeast Asia does not want to be forced into choosing sides.

ANWAR: We like to have choices. You know, for Indonesia, strategic autonomy of the region is very important, and that means that we want to be engaged with all sides, with all the major powers, without becoming too dependent, without allowing any great power to impose its hegemony.

MCCARTHY: Mahbubani says the region wants to be good friends of the United States and of China.

MAHBUBANI: And indeed, we would like both sides to frankly take a pause in the geopolitical contest and focus on fighting the common challenges we face today, like COVID-19 or climate change.

MCCARTHY: Blinken said the U.S. does not want conflict. But he did call out Beijing's aggressive action in the South China Sea as demonstration of how China undercuts the rules-based international order the U.S. wants to uphold. Munir Majid of CARI ASEAN Research and Advocacy says the region endorses the U.S. effort.

MUNIR MAJID: Without America taking action to show it wants to see the order preserved and protected, China may change it.

MCCARTHY: Blinken canceled his stop in Thailand to mitigate the risk of COVID spreading after a member of the traveling press corps tested positive. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.