In a’strategic dialogue,’ the United States and Indonesia commit to South China Sea defence.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the start of a “strategic dialogue” with Indonesia, and Washington stated that the two countries are committed to cooperating on issues such as defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Blinken and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met in Washington and agreed to work together to combat COVID-19 and the climate crisis, as well as to strengthen bilateral trade and economic ties, according to the State Department.

Indonesia is the largest country and economy in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a bloc Washington sees as key to its efforts to stand up to China’s growing influence in Asia.

The two sides agreed to establish a “strategic partnership” in 2015, but Blinken told reporters while standing alongside Marsudi that the dialogue was only now actually being initiated.

“Indonesia is a strong democratic partner to the United States; we are working together on so many different fronts,” he said, adding that Washington appreciated Jakarta’s strong voice within ASEAN.

Marsudi told Blinken a strong partnership with Indonesia would be “a key asset for your increasing engagement in the region.”

She said the United States was one of the important partners for ASEAN in implementing its Indo-Pacific outlook.

“It is my hope, and the Indonesian government’s, to advance the bilateral relationship with the U.S., from health to SDGs, from education, to economy, and beyond,” she said, using the acronym for sustainable development goals.

According to a State Department statement on the meeting, the two discussed pandemic recovery steps. Blinken noted that the United States had donated 8 million vaccine doses to Indonesia, and that the two countries were also collaborating on oxygen and therapeutics.

Marsudi and Blinken also “expressed shared views on maritime security” and pledged to “defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as continue collaboration in cybersecurity and cybercrime prevention,” according to the statement.

According to the statement, Blinken praised Indonesia’s efforts to support Afghanistan’s peace talks and emphasised the importance of returning ASEAN member Myanmar to the path of democracy.

On climate, the two sides “discussed opportunities for Indonesia to raise its climate ambition,” according to the statement, without going into further detail.

The talks took place just before Blinken was scheduled to attend a virtual meeting with ASEAN, several members of which have competing claims in the South China Sea with China. Beijing regards nearly the entire strategic waterway as its own and has deployed forces there.

Blinken is taking part in a week of meetings with regional counterparts as part of a US effort to demonstrate its commitment to engaging with Southeast Asia in order to counter China.

According to Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, there was little time to develop the strategic partnership agreement reached during the Obama administration before former President Donald Trump took office.

“Agreements like this weren’t a priority for his administration,” he said of a deal stretching into multiple domains, including defense, energy and broader economic ties.

“Hammering out details in all these areas will take some time and require considerable focus by senior foreign policy, defense and economic officials.”

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