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Blinken to address China’s assertiveness in virtual ASEAN meetings

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will address during talks with his Southeast Asian counterparts many “pressing issues” facing the region, including the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its alleged human rights abuses, government officials said Monday.


During this week’s series of virtual ASEAN-related ministerial meetings, Blinken will also call on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to press Myanmar’s junta toward restoring democracy, as well as to fully implement U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea, they said.


The events will take place as the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden is stepping up its engagement with Southeast Asian nations amid its ongoing efforts to counter China’s growing clout in the Indo-Pacific region.


While emphasizing that no country is asked to choose sides between the United States and China despite their increasing bilateral rivalry, a State Department official said Blinken will aim to convey during the meetings that the United States is a trusted partner in the Southeast Asian nations’ fight against the pandemic.


Washington has donated more than 20 million vaccine doses to Southeast Asia “free of charge and with no political or economic strings attached” and Blinken is expected to detail the continued support of ASEAN to tackle the outbreaks and achieve economic recovery, the official said.


“We want to present the countries of Southeast Asia with options and to show them that we’re acting in good faith, and as a good trustworthy partner that they can depend on,” he added.


Blinken is also expected to support “freedom of the seas” in the South China Sea, where China has been aggressive in pushing its territorial claims and building military outposts, while raising the issue of Beijing’s poor human rights records, including against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far western Xinjiang region.


The top U.S. diplomat plans to attend a total of five ASEAN-related ministerial meetings, including between the United States and ASEAN and under the framework of the East Asia Summit, which involves countries such as Japan, South Korea and China, and the ASEAN Regional Forum, of which North Korea is a member.


The State Department official said it believes North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon will attend the ARF, but Blinken has no plans to engage with him on “any particular issues.”


The Biden administration has been seeking dialogue with Pyongyang in a bid to rid the country of its nuclear weapons, but no positive response has been confirmed from North Korea so far.


On Myanmar, Blinken is expected to reiterate the Biden administration’s “grave concerns” about the Feb. 1 military coup and call on ASEAN to “take joint action to urge the military to end the violence, release all those unjustly detained, and restore Burma’s path to democracy,” the State Department said in a press release issued over the weekend.


While Myanmar’s military rulers on Sunday vowed to hold a “free and fair multiparty general election” by August 2023, the State Department official said on Monday that the junta is “just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage.”


“I think…it’s a call for ASEAN to have to step up its efforts (to engage on this issue),” he said.


ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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