US official says diplomatic push in Asia paying dividends

BANGKOK (AP) — The American diplomatic push aimed at countering China’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region appears to be paying dividends, with many nations showing a willingness to partner with the United States, a top State Department official said Friday.

U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told The Associated Press it was noteworthy that 13 nations representing 40% of the world’s economy had signed on to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that President Joe Biden launched in Japan at the end of May. He said that China at around the same time failed in its attempt to get a group of Pacific islands to endorse a sweeping agreement with Beijing.

China had broken from its traditional approach of negotiating one-on-one with countries behind the scenes to send Foreign Minister Wang Yi on an island-hopping trip last month to try and rally 10 Pacific nations behind the agreement, which covered a broad range of areas including security and fisheries.

But he was unable to find consensus on the deal at a meeting in Fiji, and instead had to settle for smaller bilateral agreements with some of them.

“I think the fact that the Chinese foreign minister’s trip, where they tried to roll out this very bold ‘take it or leave it’ initiative or partnership cooperation, wasn’t really well received, indicates to me that the Pacific island countries want to have an engagement with us,” Chollet said in an interview in Bangkok.

Chollet is in the middle of a trip to Thailand, Brunei and Singapore, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is concurrently visiting the Philippines, South Korea, Laos and Vietnam.

In addition, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is a featured speaker on the weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s premier defense and security forum, and will visit Thailand next week.

The in-person outreach is part of an approach that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May meant putting “diplomacy back at the center of American foreign policy.”

“We are determined … to be present, be engaged — not just as visitors from Washington but on a permanent basis,” Chollet said.

The push in Asia comes amid growing concerns over China’s own efforts to expand its influence in the area.

Part of Beijing’s focus has been the South China Sea, where the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, have squared off with China’s efforts to dominate the strategic waterway it claims virtually in its entirety. The U.S. and its allies have responded with so-called freedom of navigation patrols, sometimes encountering a pushback from China’s military.

Beijing already signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April that the U.S., Australia and others worry could lead to a Chinese naval base in the South Pacific. And on Wednesday, China and Cambodia broke ground on a port expansion project at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, which give China a strategically important military facility on the Gulf of Thailand, though Cambodia has denied that will be the case.

In Blinken’s speech at the end of May outlining the Biden administration’s approach to China, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine was a “clear and present threat,” but that China’s ambitions were an even greater challenge.

“Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that is the one posed by the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

Many countries in the region have close ties with China, and Chollet said the U.S. approach has not been to ask any nation to choose one side or the other, but to recognize their relationships with Beijing while also being forthright with Washington’s concerns.

“We are hearing that we are not just clients or countries that one transacts with, we want to be partners, and that’s certainly the spirit with which we are engaging them,” he said.

At the same time, the U.S. also realizes the need to work with a global power like China on international issues, like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, with China and the U.S. the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, he said.

“There are parts of the relationship that are conflictual where the U.S. and China just fundamentally disagree, there are parts that are competitive … and there are parts of the relationship that are cooperative, or at least we hope that they’re cooperative,” he said.

“That’s unfortunately a narrowing band of issues but, for example, on climate change it’s just math that we have to be able to find a way to work together if we’re going to be successful.”

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