While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends Group of 20 meetings on his first trip to Asia in more than six months, his Chinese counterpart is in the middle of a two-week diplomatic blitz across the key strategic battleground.
Since Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has obtained a new pledge from Thailand to complete a $5.2 billion rail link between the two countries, as well as expressed a willingness to enter a “golden age” of relations with the Philippines’ newly elected president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Wang also attended a regional summit in Myanmar, which the military regime celebrated as evidence of growing acceptance of its rule more than a year after deposing the civilian government in a coup.
Wang’s 11-day trip was part of China’s push to offer an alternative to the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy and assuage regional doubts about its own intentions by emphasizing shared economic benefits. The urgency of that effort has been heightened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fueled fears that China may use military force to settle its own territorial disputes in places like Taiwan.
During the G-20 meetings, which begin Friday in Bali, Indonesia, Blinken is expected to press the US case that Russia’s actions set a dangerous precedent. Wang, for his part, has been promoting President Xi Jinping’s April Global Security Initiative in an effort to appeal to developing nations wary of the Western-led campaign to punish Russia.
Wang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged in Bali to jointly safeguard developing countries’ common interests while expanding bilateral cooperation, according to Xinhua News Agency. In another meeting with India, which has moved closer to the US as a result of military clashes on its border with China, Wang told counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar that ties have improved recently and urged more efforts to get the relationship back on track.
Blinken and Wang were scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 on Saturday, in a high-level meeting that was expected to pave the way for a phone call between Xi and US President Joe Biden. The secretary of state’s most recent trip to Southeast Asia was in December, when he visited Indonesia and Malaysia but was forced to skip Thailand due to a Covid case among his entourage. He’ll make amends by going to Bangkok this time.
In recent months, the Biden administration has sought to reassert US influence in Asia, hosting leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the White House and visiting Japan and Korea. The United States has attempted to downplay the importance of countries banding together against China, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin telling a security forum in Singapore last month that smaller nations should be “free to choose, free to prosper, and free to chart their own course.”
Most Asian countries have avoided taking sides, preferring to maintain good relations with both. Wang’s recent trip appeared to be intended to capitalize on that hedging strategy, by offering a less interventionist vision of global security that does not emphasize democracy and human rights.
On the sidelines of the G-20 meetings, Wang told his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi that Beijing wants to work with Asean to “oppose any resurgence of the Cold War mentality and bloc politics in the region,” according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
This contrasts with Biden’s efforts to broaden a coalition of “like-minded democracies” through groups like the Quad, which includes Australia, India, and Japan. Most countries in the region consider China to be their most important trading partner, and Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, announced in May, remains largely theoretical.
Earlier this week, Wang obtained a commitment from Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha to complete a long-delayed railway project that will connect the two countries via Laos. The Chinese foreign minister stated at a press conference on Tuesday that the “economic corridor” linking the three countries would promote logistics, trade, and economic development.