U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently made a four-nation tour of the Indo-Pacific that took him to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia ahead of the U.S. presidential election. It was Pompeo’s latest diplomatic gambit to increase his influence within the Trump administration and play the “China card” to help his benefactor win re-election. In the process, Pompeo further enhanced his image as a China hardliner.
Pompeo’s Indo-Pacific trip has been perceived as part of the ongoing U.S. effort to contain China in the region, given the intense confrontation between the two great powers. Several days before the tour, the State Department’s David R. Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Dean R. Thompson, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, overtly urged Sri Lanka to make decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity and openly supported Indonesia and other claimant states for their demands in the South China Sea.
In New Delhi, the U.S. and India signed the long-negotiated Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which is the third major defense pact between their armed forces. Pompeo said both the U.S. and India must strengthen cooperation to address the China threat.
During his visit to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Pompeo expected to offer a 480 million USD Millennium Challenge Corporation grant to Sri Lanka and use the similar economic means to lure Maldives closer to the U.S. He also wants to foster a U.S.-Indonesia partnership and give incentives to Indonesia to counter China’s militarization of disputed South China Sea outposts.
Still, the U.S. will not succeed in containing China, either in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific region. First of all, while the U.S. may have enhanced maritime cooperation with India by reaching agreements on logistics, intelligence and information between the two armed forces — such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, LEMOA, Communications Capability and Security Agreement and COMCASA — and conducted joint military excercises in the Indian Ocean, it has actually failed to establish a formal military alliance with India.
Given India’s independent foreign policy, it won’t join any camp that targets a third country, China included. So far, India has approached the U.S. with an attempt to balance China, and has not blindly followed America’s hostile lead. For instance, India has never joined U.S. freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. It also refused to accept Trump’s offer to mediate the border dispute with China, so as to avoid U.S. interference.
Other major factors also undermine American efforts to contain China by making use of relations with India. The Indian economy has been severely damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, while China has become the first country to recover. Meanwhile, India’s military expansion is also adversely affected by its fiscal stringency. Currently, the top priority of the Indian government is to control the spread of the virus and provide enough medical services for its people, not to counter China.
For countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives, the best policy choice is to maintain balance between the great powers. As Rathindra Kuruwita, a researcher from Colombo, described Sri Lankan foreign policy over the last 15 years — especially after the end of the civil war in 2009 — as a series of desperate attempts to balance the interests of major powers that have interest in the country.
Both Sri Lanka and Maldives have become increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy and Chinese tourists, which contribute to their cordial relations over the past decade. To survive at a difficult time, given the spread of COVID-19, these countries need Chinese assistance. China provided $90 million in October and $500 million in low interest loans in March to help Sri Lanka cope with the pandemic. Meanwhile, the U.S. itself has been mired in the pandemic and has little to offer these countries.
As a powerful state in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, Indonesia has drawn rising attention from American strategists in recent years. The U.S. has encouraged it to play a big role both in the South China Sea and in its overall Indo-Pacific strategy. However, Jakarta wants to stay neutral in the China-U.S. power rivalry. Recently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo rejected a U.S. request to host the multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft P-8 Poseidon, which would be used to surveil Chinese positions in the South China Sea because Indonesia does not want to provoke China. It also gave a cold shoulder to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. Instead, it has pushed forward ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook, which emphasizes ASEAN centrality, the priority of economic prosperity and an inclusive and open Indo-Pacific region.