US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on December 14 criticised China’s “aggressive actions claiming open seas as their own”, as Washington seeks allies in the region against Beijing.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change. We do, too. That’s why we’re determined to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where Beijing’s aggressive actions there threatened the movement of more than $3 trillion worth of commerce every year,” Blinken said in his key policy speech at the University of Indonesia in Depok, West Java, during his first leg of his visit to Southeast Asia.

China claims most of the South China Sea, bringing it into dispute with the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, as well as Taiwan authorities.

Indonesia is a non-claimant state, but has had clashes with China over fishing rights in the North Natuna Sea, near the South China Sea, and most recently oil and gas drilling activities in the area.

Blinken said Washington will work with its allies and partners “to defend a rules-based order” to ensure the region remains open and accessible.

Doing this, he stressed, is “not about a contest between a US-centric region or a China-centric region” as the Indo-Pacific is its own region. Rather, the goal is to uphold the rights and agreements which had contributed to peace and prosperity in the region.

“When we say that we want a free and open Indo-Pacific we mean that on an individual level, that people will be free in their daily lives and live in open societies,” Blinken said.

“We mean that on a state level, that individual countries will be able to choose their own path and their own partners . . . on a regional level, that in this part of the world, problems will be dealt with openly, rules will be reached transparently and applied fairly, goods and ideas and people will flow freely across land, cyberspace and the open seas.”

Blinken said the world’s most dynamic region that is “free from coercion and accessible to all” will not only be good for the people living there, but also for the US.

China hit back at Blinken’s comments, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying at a regular media briefing in Beijing on December 14 that Washington should respect the ways the region maintains peace, especially through ASEAN, “instead of drawing ideological lines, putting together small cliques and inciting bloc confrontation”, Bloomberg reported.

“We hope the US will truly follow through on the spirit of the summit between the two heads of state and pursue win-win results and peaceful coexistence rather than talking one thing and acting another,” Wang added, referring to a video conference that the leaders of the two countries held last month.

In his speech, Blinken also spoke of democracy and the Myanmar issue, where he promised that the US will continue to work with its allies and partners to press the regime to “restore Myanmar’s path to inclusive democracy”.

In Indonesia, Blinken met President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the Jakarta presidential palace on December 13, and expressed the US’ commitment to strengthen its partnership with Indonesia, including in economic development and infrastructure development.

In the meeting described by Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi as “warm and open”, Jokowi had expressed his appreciation for the support given by the US during the Covid-19 pandemic.