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US sends top diplomat on ASEAN quest

The United States’ top diplomat for East Asia will visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand after President Joe Biden pledged to step up engagement with Southeast Asia, a key battleground in his contest for influence with China.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, will be in the region from Saturday until December 4, a State Department statement said.

Kritenbrink will “reaffirm the US commitment to work together … to tackle the most serious global and regional challenges” and stress US support for “a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” it said.

Washington has repeatedly denounced China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region as “coercive”.

Kritenbrink will discuss human rights “challenges”, seek to bolster co-operation on climate change and discuss ways to pressure Myanmar’s military government to cease violence and allow unhindered humanitarian access, the statement said.

He will also discuss how to strengthen economic relationships and “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biden joined leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in a virtual summit last month, the first time in four years Washington had engaged at the top level with the bloc.

He pledged to stand with ASEAN in defending freedom of the seas and democracy, and said Washington would start talks on developing a regional economic framework, something critics say the US’s Asia strategy has lacked since his predecessor Donald Trump quit a regional trade pact.

Daniel Russel, a predecessor of Kritenbrink in the Obama administration, said a key question for ASEAN was “whether the United States truly has a viable economic strategy” for the region.

“The pledge to discuss ways to strengthen US economic engagement with ASEAN countries is music to their ears, even if they may be underwhelmed by the ‘economic framework’ so far,” he said.

Kritenbrink’s trip announcement stressed the “centrality” of the 10-member ASEAN to regional affairs, but he will not visit the bloc’s new chair, Cambodia, which has shifted ever closer to China.

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