Blinken cuts short Southeast Asia tour after COVID-19 case in his entourage

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the international airport in Jakarta on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, on his first stop of a three-nation tour across Southeast Asia. (AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cut short his trip to Southeast Asia after a journalist part of his official entourage tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday.

The positive case was confirmed while Blinken was in Malaysia, a US State Department official was quoted as saying by Reuters. Blinken flew to Malaysia from Indonesia where he spent two days.

The decision to cut short the trip was made to mitigate the COVID-19 risk and prioritize health and safety, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

She said Blinken had over phone expressed his “deep regret” to the foreign minister of Thailand, where he was scheduled to land on Thursday, over changes in plan.

It was the US Secretary of State’s first trip to Southeast Asia, where the Biden administration has been trying to win new allies to compete against China, the regional heavyweight.

On the first leg of his south-east Asia tour in Indonesia, Blinken on Tuesday outlined the US approach to the Indo-Pacific region where both Washington and Beijing are vying for influence.

Washington, he asserted, would work with allies and partners to “defend the rules-based order” and countries should have the right to “choose their own path”.

The journalist was part of the 12-member press corps accompanying Blinken on the regional tour.

“The person was not involved and has not participated in any of Secretary Blinken’s programmes in Kuala Lumpur,” said a statement by the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, adding that “other close contacts had been re-tested with results all negative as of 12 hours ago.”

A report in New York Times said the journalist who tested positive for the virus was “part of the small group of news media personnel” who travel with the top US diplomat.

The journalist had tested negative in Jakarta on Monday but then received a positive test for the virus after arriving in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, on Tuesday night, the report stated.

Meanwhile, Blinken has invited Thai foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, who also serves as Thailand’s deputy prime minister, to visit Washington “at the earliest opportunity,” Price said.

On Wednesday, Blinken held meetings with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri Bin Yaakob and other senior Malaysian officials in Kuala Lumpur.

Blinken also held a joint press conference with Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah on Wednesday.

Abdullah said the pair had a “very candid and fruitful discussion” in the morning and that this included “the latest COVID-19 situation and possible cooperation between both countries in entering the endemic phase [of the pandemic]”.


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