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Blinken Heads to Southeast Asia With Economic Ties in Mind

The United States is playing catch-up in a region where China has double the U.S. trade footprint.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs for a tour of Southeast Asia
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs for a tour of Southeast Asia
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he departs for a tour of Southeast Asia from Liverpool, England, on Dec. 12. OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Indonesia, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travels to the United Arab Emirates, and the world this week.


Blinken Heads to Southeast Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Indonesia today on the first stop of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia as the Biden administration seeks to set its sights on what it sees as a key region following weeks focused on areas of upheaval in Europe and Africa.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Indonesia, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett travels to the United Arab Emirates, and the world this week.


Blinken Heads to Southeast Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Indonesia today on the first stop of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia as the Biden administration seeks to set its sights on what it sees as a key region following weeks focused on areas of upheaval in Europe and Africa.

I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, a senior official in Indonesia’s foreign ministry, said Blinken’s visit to Jakarta would “initiate an increasingly high-level interaction between Indonesia and the United States in the context of the strategic partnership between the two countries.” Blinken is also expected to deliver a speech on the importance of the Indo-Pacific region.

Although today’s meetings, and others in Malaysia and Thailand later in the week, will ostensibly focus on bilateral engagement, China will remain top of mind for Blinken as the United States attempts to gain influence in a region economically dominated by its strategic rival.

To that end, Blinken is expected to discuss the Biden administration’s plans for a new Indo-Pacific economic framework. Although not concrete, a White House readout from October, when the initiative was announced, said the plan would focus on “trade facilitation, standards for the digital economy and technology, supply chain resiliency, decarbonization and clean energy, infrastructure, worker standards and other areas of shared interest.”

That laundry list, if realized, would be a welcome change from traditional U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia, which has tended to concentrate on military ties. As Kishore Mahbubani argued in Foreign Policy on Sunday, that policy is overdue a rethink, with the combined economies of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) expected to eclipse that of Japan, currently the world’s third largest, by 2030.

Making an economic play under China’s nose won’t be easy. Aside from ASEAN countries’ unwillingness to choose sides in the U.S.-China rivalry, they will also remember the experience of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a globe-spanning free trade deal that the United States left under President Donald Trump. The deal, now toxic in Washington, has been rebranded as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and China has applied to become a member.

As the Biden administration renews its focus on the Indo-Pacific, grand gestures are reportedly in the works, with a U.S.-ASEAN leaders summit at the White House planned for January.


The World This Week 

Tuesday, Dec. 14: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers the nominations of Donald Blome to be ambassador to Pakistan, Eric Garcetti to be ambassador to India, and Amy Gutmann to be ambassador to Germany.

Wednesday, Dec. 15: The EU Eastern Partnership summit takes place in Brussels between the European Union and its neighbors Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. On the sidelines, European Council President Charles Michel will host a summit between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Thursday, Dec. 16: G-7 health ministers hold a meeting to discuss developments regarding the omicron COVID-19 variant.

EU heads of state and government convene in Brussels for a two-day leaders’ summit.

Saturday, Dec. 17: Russia’s withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty takes effect.

Sunday, Dec. 18: Hong Kong holds Legislative Council elections.

Chile holds its presidential election runoff between the right-wing Jose Antonio Kast and the left-wing Gabriel Boric.


What We’re Following Today

UAE-Israel ties. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is in the United Arab Emirates today to meet with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on a historic visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister as the two countries seek to deepen ties following the Abraham Accords and likely discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Bennett’s trip comes after Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid paved the way in June when he met with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and opened a new Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

Czech succession. Incoming Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala holds talks with President Milos Zeman today in Prague amid a brewing constitutional crisis after Zeman rejected Fiala’s choice for foreign minister late last week, citing concerns over whether the Pirate Party’s Jan Lipavsky was qualified to hold the position. The Czech Republic’s constitution is unclear on whether Zeman has the authority to reject cabinet nominees for reasons unrelated to criminal behavior.

Although Fiala was approved as prime minister in November, he has yet to take office, as Zeman’s actions and ill health have delayed proceedings. As a result, outgoing Prime Minister Andrej Babis was on the end of the line when U.S. President Joe Biden called the so-called Bucharest Nine to discuss U.S.-NATO policy last week.


Keep an Eye On  

Libya’s election. Libya’s presidential election plans appear in jeopardy after the country’s election commission announced it was delaying the final publication of the candidate list amid legal challenges over eligibility. The decision hampers the ability of candidates to campaign and virtually assures that the originally scheduled Dec. 24 election will not go ahead now.

As Samir Bennis observed in Foreign Policy at the beginning of the month, Libya’s election chaos highlights the international community’s focus on a rushed election timetable instead of tackling the more deep-seated problems Libya faces.

G-7 issues Russia warning. G-7 nations warned Russia of “massive consequences and severe cost in response” should it take new military action against Ukraine in a statement issued at the culmination of a meeting of foreign ministers in Liverpool, England, on Sunday. The rhetoric adds to a number of warnings from Western officials in recent days and comes as Blinken told NBC that the United States was “prepared to take the kinds of steps we’ve refrained from taking in the past” in pressuring Russia to de-escalate tensions in the region.


Odds and Ends

Antonio Staglianò, a Catholic bishop in Sicily, may be waking up to a lump of coal on Dec. 25 after he enraged parents by telling a group of children that Santa Claus did not exist.

According to Italian media, the priest included commentary on the festive figure’s attire, telling those gathered that the traditional red suit had been thought up by Coca-Cola.

Staglianò’s diocese has sought to clarify his comments, placing them in the context of an anti-consumerist message as the holiday season approaches. “If we can all draw a lesson, young or old, from the figure of Santa Claus … it is this: fewer gifts to ‘create’ and ‘consume’ and more ‘gifts’ to share,” the diocese said in a statement.


That’s it for today.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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