WASHINGTON—US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will stress the central regional role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a virtual meeting with the bloc's foreign ministers on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
The meeting with the 10-member bloc will be the first since the Biden administration took office in January and comes amid concerns among diplomats and others that Washington has not been paying sufficient attention to a region that is crucial to its regional strategy to counter an increasingly powerful China.
Earlier this month, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, Kurt Campbell, said the United States had been "missing in action" in many respects in the Pacific region and needed to "step up our game in Southeast Asia," including through COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, in which the United States in competing with China.
Asked whether Blinken would deliver a message about greater US engagement with Southeast Asia, Price told a regular news briefing:
"This is a region in the Indo-Pacific that is vitally important to us for any number of interests, but also our values. I think what the secretary will say tonight . . . is a reaffirmation of our commitment to ASEAN centrality, and a reaffirmation of ASEAN's central and essential role in the Indo-Pacific's regional architecture."
The United States hosted a meeting in March of the so-called Quad group of countries — Japan, Australia, India and the United States — who agreed that Indian drugmaker Biological E Ltd would produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for Southeast Asian and Pacific countries.
However, India, the world's largest vaccine producer, was subsequently hit by a catastrophic wave of infections and halted vaccine exports amid intense criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's domestic vaccination efforts. (Reporting by Simon Lewis, Daphne Psaledakis, Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)