JAKARTA, Indonesia — Downplaying direct confrontation between the United States and China, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday pledged to strengthen relations with Indo-Pacific nations through billions of dollars in American investment and aid and, in doing so, counter Beijing’s regional pull.
That soft-power pitch was delivered at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, the country’s capital, and continued with a series of agreements on maritime cooperation and education and Peace Corps exchanges. The university was also the site of a speech nearly 60 years ago by Robert F. Kennedy, who spoke then of open relations among states, so long as one did not threaten the rights of others.
Mr. Blinken called it remarkable that the broader goal had changed so little for a region that now accounts for 60 percent of the global economy and is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The Indo-Pacific covers countries primarily in the Indian Ocean region, including India, Australia, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
“We all have a stake in ensuring that the world’s most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all,” he said. “This is good for people across the region, and it’s good for Americans, because history shows that when this vast region is free and open, America is more secure and more prosperous.”
But China, the regional heavyweight, overshadows U.S. trade in nearly country in the Indo-Pacific. In Southeast Asia alone, two-way trade with China reached $685 billion in 2020, more than double that of the region’s trade with the United States.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is aimed at building infrastructure like ports, railway lines and roads around the world, has continued to make inroads in Southeast Asia even during the pandemic. This month, Laos completed its first high-speed railway, a $6 billion project backed by China. A few weeks before that, Vietnam opened its first metro line in Hanoi, also thanks to China. And in Indonesia, China has spent billions of dollars to build high-speed rail lines, power plants, dams and highways.
“The Achilles’ heel of U.S. policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the U.S. in trade and infrastructure investment,” said Jonathan R. Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Unlike his predecessor, President Biden has avoided directly pressuring other nations to choose between partnering with either the United States or China on a host of issues. Still, Mr. Stromseth said, parallel efforts by China and the United States to outdo each other risks “that a bipolar divide is hardening for the long term, with potentially serious consequences for regional stability and development.”
China has stepped up its military operations in the Indo-Pacific, with warplanes flying over parts of Taiwan and staking claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea. These actions, among others, have put the Pentagon on alert.
Mr. Blinken said bluntly, “We don’t want conflict in the Indo-Pacific.” Yet he also described “much concern” in the region over Beijing’s actions, which he said has distorted open markets with state-subsidized products, limited trade by its adversaries and engaged in illegal fishing. “Countries across the region want this behavior to change,” Mr. Blinken said. “We do too.”
Mr. Blinken’s main message was that the United States is a better bet as a partner than China.
He said the United States had donated 300 million coronavirus vaccines — one-third of its worldwide contribution — to the Indo-Pacific and would continue to invest billions of dollars in its public health systems.
The vaccines, which Mr. Blinken said were given “with no strings attached,” may prove to be the United States’ main leverage in Southeast Asia, as hundreds of millions of doses sent by Chinese companies have been found to be largely ineffective against the Delta variant.
On climate, Mr. Blinken noted a $500 million commitment to help finance a solar manufacturing facility in India as among efforts to help the region stave off environmental crises without disrupting economies. He pledged to pursue agreements to bolster data privacy and secure technology used in economic transactions, “because if we don’t shape them, others will.”
And he said the Biden administration would work to ease snarls in the global goods supply chain in a region that buys nearly one-third of all U.S. exports.
Across Southeast Asia, private investments by the United States amounted to $328.5 billion in 2020, outpacing China. “The region has told us loud and clear that it wants us to do more,” Mr. Blinken said. “We’ll meet that call.”
Mr. Blinken’s visit to Indonesia, the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was viewed as overdue: Neither Vice President Kamala Harris nor Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III stopped here in recent travels to the region. In a fresh reminder of the nation’s strategic value, Mr. Blinken arrived only a few hours after Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council; their planes were parked next to each other at Jakarta’s airport.
Mr. Blinken’s speech was well received by some within Indonesia. Tom Lembong, who was Indonesia’s trade minister from 2015 to 2016, said it “hit the bull’s-eye on what policymakers across ASEAN want, which is concrete and practical solutions, and less of the soaring rhetoric that has dominated American official engagement with Southeast Asia over the last two decades.”
“I would argue that at this time, the Biden administration is succeeding in Southeast Asia — they’re regaining lost ground and making up for lost time,” Mr. Lembong said in an email.
Many countries in Southeast Asia remain wary of being drawn into a Cold-War standoff between the United States and China. In November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore indicated that he was uncomfortable with Mr. Biden’s calls to persuade leaders from democracies to present a more unified front against China.
“We all want to work together with the U.S.,” Mr. Lee said in a November interview with Bloomberg News. But, he added, “I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.”
The region is split between countries that are friendlier with China, like Cambodia and Laos, and others that are more hard-line, such as Vietnam. In previous years, the bloc of Southeast Asian states has been torn about how to address the dispute in the South China Sea, with some nations not wanting to offend Beijing.
“The sin of China is undermining and breaking up ASEAN,” said Kasit Piromya, who was Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. “China has the money, they are rich and have their projects and initiatives. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be their doormat. I think we are terrified of China, but this is not based on reality.”
Lara Jakes reported from Jakarta and Sui-Lee Wee from Singapore. Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Bangkok.