Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, attended the ASEAN-centered meetings, and presided over the meeting entitled “Plan of Action of the Lower Mekong Initiative”. Before and after his Southeast Asian tour, Secretary Pompeo spoke extensively about US policies and measures for strengthened economic ties and security cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries, which served to further beef up the Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. However, just as Gurpreet S. Khurana, Director of India’s National Maritime Foundation, said, Trump’s attempt to set up a new cold-war alliance in line with his “Indo-Pacific Strategy” could be exceptionally dangerous for countries in the region.
US “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is taking shape
Back in November 2017 when visiting Asia, President Donald Trump formally announced the formation of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” to replace Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia and the Pacific” policy. In its first National Security Strategy report released a month later, the Trump administration highlighted once again the importance of “Indo-Pacific” to the US and defined it as the vast area that stretches from the western tip of the Indian Ocean to the eastern shores of America, a region that boasts the world’s largest population and enjoys the world’s most vibrant economic growth.
Since its inception, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” has been steadily fleshed out with more detailed policies and measures. First, a four-party mechanism was put in place for diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation among the US, Japan, Australia, and India. The mechanism is likely to grow in the future, even to the point of becoming an Asian-style NATO that some believe the US wishes to see. Secondly, a network of US-led partnerships in the “Indo-Pacific” region was vigorously promoted. By selling advanced weapons and holding 2+2 dialogues, the US keeps courting India and urging it to “go East” and cultivate stronger ties with Southeast Asian countries. The US also sent Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries. Mattis described Vietnam as a “natural partner” and promised Indonesia he would help it become a “global maritime axis”.
In the economic field, the US joined Japan and Australia in giving greater support to infrastructure development in the region. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, both agencies linked to their governments, signed multiple agreements in this regard. The US and Australia declared the establishment of an “Indo-Pacific-oriented Energy Partnership”. Though President Trump withdrew from TPP the moment he stepped into office, one can hardly rule out the possibility that he might join the CPTPP that Japan championed.
In his speech at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Washington DC last July, Secretary Pompeo outlined the Trump administration’s “economic vision for the region”. He said the US would step up trade and investment in the region, deepening cooperation with countries there in three major areas, namely digital economy and cyber security, energy and resource exploitation and infrastructure development. He promised to invest $113 million as a “down payment” for this effort. During his latest tour of Southeast Asia, he also announced a $300 million pledge for strengthening security cooperation in the region.
Properly Managing China-US Geopolitical Competition
Trump’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” has an obvious aim of balancing China’s rising influence, particularly its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In his private exchanges with some prominent business leaders and senior Whitehouse colleagues on August 7, President Trump was quoted as saying that China’s BRI was both aggressive and potentially disruptive to global trade. Almost at the same time, some 16 US Senators sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Secretary of State Pompeo expressing disquiet and disapproval of BRI and calling it a scheme to build a global economic order dominated ultimately by China.
The US has unmistakably identified China as its biggest threat. Just as John Hopkins Professor David M. Lampton said, the three pillars that used to support China-US relations – the economy, security, and diplomatic and cultural exchanges, have become increasingly fragile, and Washington’s China policy seems to have entered a “post-engagement” period. More US officials are using Cold-War jargon to characterize China-US relations. While participating in the Aspen Security Forum in July 2018, Michael Collins, a top official from the CIA East Asia Center, remarked that China was waging a “soundless” cold war against the US, one that was different from the US-USSR Cold War, and aimed to supersede the US as the world’s dominant power.
To prevent China-US relations from sliding into disastrous confrontation, it is imperative to manage their geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region. To begin with, the Trump administration should watch its rhetoric. US officials often accuse China of being an “economic predator.” It portrays China’s BRI as a “debt trap”, and claim the initiative will compromise the sovereignty and interests of participating countries and undermine regional security in general. Such a practice might serve to scare people away from China but it will do nothing to help US competitiveness. While criticizing China for funding much-needed development projects in developing countries, the US government and enterprises show little interest in investing in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The history of the past decade or more shows that Washington was either half-hearted about engaging Southeast Asia economically or motivated only by changing the political system of given countries.
Secondly, Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to pick a side in the event of China-US standoff. They want stronger trade and investment relations with major countries, but they don’t want to find themselves in a situation reminiscent of the Cold War. ASEAN remains quite wary about the policy shifts of the Trump administration. The TPP, from which the US has chosen to withdraw, still has four members coming from Southeast Asia. In the immediate future, what worries ASEAN more is Trump’s “trade war” offensive instead of the so-called economic dependence on China. According to estimates by Singapore’s largest bank, DBS, Singapore’s 2019 growth rate will fall from the predicted 2.7% to 1.2% if China and the US impose a 15-25% tariff on each other’s exports.
Thirdly, even US allies like Japan and Australia are trying to avoid confrontation with China. America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s BRI are not necessarily competitors. And the Indo-Pacific strategies followed by the three countries are not the same. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is busy preparing his visit to China this fall. As he said, Japan-China relations have entered an era of mutual adjustment. Indeed, Japan has offered a detailed plan for the two countries to work together in the context of BRI, including their collective support for the project of the “Eastern economic corridor” in Thailand. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, during a recent function at the University of New South Wales, indicated he wanted to improve Australia-China relations. He expressed hopes that the two countries could work together on BRI.
To summarize, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” should not be made into an instrument for escalated competition between China and US. There is no need for the US to look at China’s rising regional influence through Cold-War spectacles, much less bring pressure to bear on those that need outside assistance for domestic development. Turning Southeast Asia or the South Pacific islands into the battleground of a new cold war just for the sake of preserving US primacy is both unfair and dangerous. It is high time for China and the US to find a way to interact healthily in the Indo-Pacific region.