Pompeo bids to charm Asian giants amid China challenge

Pompeo bids to charm Asian giants amid China challenge

Mike Pompeo, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during their meeting at the Prime Minister’s Residence in New Delhi, India. (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finishes up on Thursday an important India trip, which is part of a wider three-nation visit that also includes stop-offs in two other key allied nations — Japan and South Korea. This latest tour is seeing him doubling down on embedding his revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China’s growing strength.

One of the big potential windows of opportunity Pompeo senses right now in the Indo-Pacific (the Donald Trump team’s preferred phrase for the massive geography spreading from the US west coast to India) comes with the landslide re-election of Narendra Modi. Hence the reason why New Delhi, which is also wary of Beijing’s rise to power, was the first stop for Pompeo before heading to Japan — to push negotiations for a bilateral trade treaty and for the G20 summit — and then to South Korea, where the nuclear talks with the North will be top of the agenda.

To be sure, there remain some irritants in the Washington-New Delhi relationship, including US threats to levy sanctions if India continues to buy Russian military equipment. Moreover, the two nations are also in dispute over tariffs and the possibility of US restrictions on work visas for Indian professionals in retaliation for New Delhi’s insistence on local data storage by big foreign firms. 

Nevertheless, this week’s talks have been upbeat. The deepening of the US-India relationship is centered on promoting a regional agenda of ensuring “freedom of the seas and skies, promoting market economics, supporting good governance, and insulating sovereign nations from coercion.” And a key part of the overall US rationale for its revamped US Indo-Pacific strategy is enabling India to potentially act as a counterweight to China.

To this end, Washington declared New Delhi a major US defense partner in 2016. And, last September, Pompeo helped finalize with India a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, underpinning greater counterterrorism and defense cooperation, which then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed elevated bilateral relations “to unprecedented heights,” including the first bilateral military exercises in the Bay of Bengal later this year.

The success of that India trip last autumn helped bring greater credibility to the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy, which has come under criticism for its perceived (under) ambition vis a vis China, which has its own ambitious “Belt and Road” scheme. Hence why Pompeo has spent time during his previous trips articulating revamped plans for a “new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” This includes plans for some $113 million in regional investments focused on technology, energy and infrastructure that, in the secretary of state’s words, represent “just a down payment” on US commitment to the region.

Yet, welcome as the details of the administration’s emerging plan are for many US allies, critics claim that the strategy will have less overall impact than the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To be sure, the Trump team has announced alternative plans to pursue bilateral trade deals in the region, but this has so far had only very limited success, with no TPP signatories yet finalizing any such agreements with the US.

And the added pressure on the White House here is China’s monumental ambition in comparison, as illustrated by the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, along with its alternative vision to TPP of a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Inevitably, this has led to concerns about future US influence in the region, with, for instance, former Obama administration trade representative Michael Froman despairing that Washington “is the one going to be left on the sidelines as others (especially Beijing) move forward.”

Partisan criticism of the Trump team’s plan aside, history also points to the apparent under-ambition of current US strategy. Since 1945, US administrations of both Republican and Democratic stripes have helped create and nurture key global and regional bodies and institutions — from the UN to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — that have helped embed US influence.

Partisan criticism of the Trump team’s plan aside, history also points to the apparent under-ambition of current US strategy.

Andrew Hammond

Inspired by this postwar success, both the administrations of George H.W. Bush and especially Bill Clinton sought to respond to the collapse of Soviet communism by encouraging the creation of a range of institutions, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In this context, the Obama team’s TPP was only the latest example of a global institution-building project that began in the post-Second World War era to embed US influence and encourage the growth of democracy and open markets. 

It is in this context that Pompeo is now seeking to convince US allies that the Trump team is wholly committed — politically, economically and security-wise — to the region. Here, one key message will be that, while his plan is, so far at least, dwarfed by the Belt and Road Initiative, the US model being promoted is more sustainable and adheres to international standards of transparency and the rule of law.

The implicit criticism here is that Beijing, by contrast, could leave countries in massive debt thanks to the Belt and Road’s stress on state infrastructure projects. While this US message will resonate with some, other key regional players will nonetheless be torn due to the massive scale of potential financing offered by China. Real questions remain about the ambition of the Trump team’s regional strategy at a moment of significant geopolitical flux.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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