Antony Blinken has criticised "Beijing's aggressive actions" against its neighbours and upheld Washington's commitment to an Indo-Pacific region "free from coercion and accessible to all" in the US secretary of state's first visit to southeast Asia since taking office.
The speech in Jakarta broke little new ground, said analysts, but they felt it might bolster US credibility in the region after the volatility of Donald Trump's administration, which included a trade war with China and America's exit from the transpacific trade pact.
Mr Blinken also said that President Joe Biden planned to host regional leaders at a summit to be held in the US in coming months.
"It's not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region. The Indo-Pacific is its own region," Mr Blinken said at the University of Indonesia, during the first leg of a three-country visit that will also take him to Malaysia and Thailand.
Mr Blinken said that the US was committed to ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where, he added, Beijing’s maritime claims on most of the sea threatened the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of trade every year.
“It’s worth remembering that tied up in that colossal number are the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people across the world,” Mr Blinken said.
“When commerce can’t traverse these open seas, that means farmers are blocked from shipping their produce, factories can’t ship their microchips and hospitals are blocked from getting life-saving medicines.”
Mr Blinken's address was billed as a crucial update on Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy, its policy of building ties with the countries on China's doorstep in the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing.
His remarks were met with a pointed response from Beijing, where a foreign ministry spokesman accused the US of “exaggerating the so-called China threat”.
"The US should facilitate regional dialogue and co-operation, rather than provoke and disrupt relations in the region," Wang Wenbin added.
Southeast Asia is the region closest to the frontline of the US and China’s conflicts over geopolitics, economic influence, human rights and maritime claims.
"Having a secretary of state come to the region and give a fairly normal, standard speech and try to get some awareness of what the US is doing is what needs to happen now to rebuild [after]\ the Trump years," said Aaron Connelly, senior fellow in southeast Asian politics and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
Last week, the US hosted a “Summit for Democracy” from which it excluded several southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and Thailand, rankling some in the region.
In Bangkok on Thursday Mr Blinken is due to meet prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and, separately, civil society groups resisting what they describe as a clampdown on expression and human rights in the kingdom.
In his speech in Jakarta, Mr Blinken said the US planned to strengthen its treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand.
While the Biden administration has not announced any plans to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr Blinken said Washington was developing a “comprehensive Indo-Pacific economic framework” that would include co-operation on trade, the digital economy, technology, supply chain resilience and investments in decarbonisation.
Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said: "The speech had the purpose of emphasising the US commitment to Asia and reiterating what it has been doing and is willing to do, with an emphasis on south-east Asia in particular." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021