BANGKOK – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is criticizing Southeast Asian nations for not doing enough to press Myanmar’s military government to return the country to the path of democracy following last year’s power seizure.
But as Blinken lamented the lack of progress in Myanmar, also known as Burma, he also moved to strengthen US ties with key regional ally Thailand – part of efforts to counter Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific.
Speaking at a news conference in Bangkok, Blinken said it was “unfortunate” that repression in Myanmar was continuing nearly 18 months after the military takeover. And, he said he was disappointed that Myanmar’s neighbors weren’t applying pressure for it to end.
“I think it’s unfortunately safe to say that we’ve seen no positive movement,” Blinken told reporters. “On the contrary, we continue to see the repression of the Burmese people who continue to see violence perpetrated by the regime.”
He blasted Myanmar’s military leaders for jailing or forcing almost the entire opposition to flee and for worsening the grim humanitarian situation by not delivering the kind of assistance and supplies that are needed to improve conditions.
Blinken then took aim at Myanmar’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has been attempting to convince the military into implementing a five-point plan to return the country to a democratic path.
“All countries have to continue to speak clearly about what the regime is doing in its ongoing repression and brutality,” he said. “We have an obligation to the people of Burma to hold the regime accountable. Regional support for the regime’s adherence to the five-point plan developed by ASEAN is also critical. That has not happened. ”
He added that all members of ASEAN “need to hold the regime accountable for that, continue to demand an immediate cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners and the restoration of Burma’s democratic path.”
Just last week, Myanmar hosted a regional gathering of officials in what the opposition said was a direct contravention of the ASEAN peace plan following the ouster of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi’s ouster in February 2021 triggered widespread peaceful protests that were violently suppressed and evolved into armed resistance, and the country has slipped into what some UN experts characterize as a civil war.
Blinken traveled to Thailand after attending a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 rich and large developing countries in Indonesia, where he accused China of siding with Russia over the war in Ukraine and said that support was complicating 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. Blinken’s visit to Thailand was intended to bolster at least one small part of that order.
In Bangkok, Blinken signed two cooperation agreements with his Thai counterpart, pledging to expand strategic cooperation with Thailand 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 US 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, he said the US 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 US 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.
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 US 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, and so on,” Blinken said in Bali. “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.”
US 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 raises its game,” Blinken said. “That would actually benefit everyone.”
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.