BANGKOK — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Thailand as the Biden administration prepares to show its commitment to Southeast Asia in the face of relentless pressure for influence in the region from China.
Blinken was meeting senior Thai officials and democracy activists from neighboring Myanmar in Bangkok on Sunday. He signed an agreement with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, expanding the US-Thai “strategic alliance and partnership”.
Blinken came to Thailand after attending an international conference in Bali, Indonesia, where he also raised concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Like its predecessors, the Biden administration has cautiously watched China’s rapid growth and sought to hold it to international standards without significant success. Blinken said on Saturday that China’s support for Russia in its war in Ukraine posed a threat to the rules-based order and complicated already strained relations between Washington and Beijing.
But China’s aggressive push toward its Southeast Asian neighbors and maintaining a strong U.S. regional presence are top of Blinken’s agenda in Thailand, U.S. officials say. They also say Blinken will offer support and encouragement to Myanmar dissidents who have been forced to flee the country since the military took over the elected government on February 1, 2021.
The United States and like-minded democracies are trying to discourage developing countries in Southeast Asia from embarking on large-scale infrastructure and development projects with China, unless they are proven economically feasible, structurally sound and environmentally friendly.
“Our point is not to ask countries to choose, but to give them choices when it comes to investment and infrastructure, development aid, etc. Blinken said in Bali.
“There is at one level a lot of room for everyone to be able to do this because the needs are immense,” he said. “But what we want to make sure is that we are in a race to the top – that is, we are doing things to the highest standards – and not a race to the bottom where we do things to the lowest standards.”
US officials from several administrations have criticized China for exploiting smaller nations by luring them into unfair or misleading deals.
“My hope would be that if, as China continues to engage in all of these endeavors, they engage in a race to the top, they raise their game,” Blinken said. “It would actually benefit everyone.”