The Biden administration moved Sunday to strengthen ties with key Southeast Asian ally Thailand as it pressed ahead with efforts to counter China’s relentless push for influence in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed two cooperation agreements with his Thai counterpart, pledging to expand strategic cooperation and improve the resilience of supply chains.
Although modest, the deals fit into the administration’s broader strategy for the Indo-Pacific, which is aimed at blunting China’s increasing assertiveness and offering alternatives to Beijing-sponsored development that many U.S. officials regard as a trap for smaller, poorer nations.
Blinken did not mention China by name in his comments with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha or Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai but after signing the deals said the U.S. and Thailand “share the same goal of a free, open, interconnected prosperous, resilient and secure Indo-Pacific."
American officials use that phrase often to refer to the prevention of Chinese dominance in the region and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had similar comments when he visited Bangkok last month and met Prayuth.
Thailand is already a member of President Joe Biden's Indo-Pacific Economic Forum, a bloc that was created earlier this year with the aim of curbing the momentum of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which has poured billions of dollars into development and infrastructure projects throughout Asia and elsewhere.
Blinken went to Bangkok after attending an international conference in Indonesia, where he also raised concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness, as well as its backing for Russia’s war in Ukraine that he said had complicated already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing.
After meeting China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bali on Saturday, Blinken warned that Chinese support for Russia on Ukraine poses a threat to the rules-based international order.
Like its predecessors, the Biden administration has watched China’s rapid growth warily and sought to hold it to international standards without significant success.
The U.S. and like-minded democracies are trying to discourage developing Southeast Asian and other countries from entering large-scale infrastructure and development projects with China unless they are proven economically feasible, structurally sound and environmentally safe.
“What we’re about is not asking countries to choose but giving them a choice when it comes to things like investment and infrastructure, development assistance, et cetera,” Blinken said in Bali.
“There is on one level plenty of room for everyone to do that because the needs are immense,” he said. “But what we want to make sure is that we’re engaged in a race to the top — that is, we do things to the highest standards — not a race to the bottom where we do things to the lowest standards.”
U.S. officials from multiple administrations have criticized China for exploiting smaller nations by luring them into unfair or deceptive agreements.
“My hope would be that if, as China continues to engage itself in all of these efforts that it engages in a race to the top, that it raise its game,” Blinken said. “That would actually benefit everyone.”
Before beginning his program with Thai officials in Bangkok, Blinken offered support and encouragement to Myanmar dissidents who have been forced to flee their country since the military seized power from the elected government on Feb. 1, 2021.
Before returning to Washington, Blinken will travel on Monday from Bangkok to Tokyo, where he will make a brief condolence call on senior Japanese officials following the assassination on Friday of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
© Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.