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Will Pompeo’s Asia trip help arrest China influence? It’s not a one-day match, say experts

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Asia was perceived as a US bid to bolster Indo-Pacific cooperation and and thereby arrest Beijing’s influence in the region.

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New Delhi: With stops in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia and Vietnam, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Asia this week was perceived as a bid by Washington to bolster Indo-Pacific cooperation and, subsequently, the Quad alliance, and thereby arrest Beijing’s influence in the region. 

But experts caution against expectations of quick results, saying American efforts to challenge China in the Indo-Pacific will not play out as a one-day match but as a long-drawn tournament. 

They said the US efforts in the region are likely to continue — if with a less aggressive rhetoric — even if the presidential election next week lead to the ouster of incumbent Donald Trump.   

Pompeo’s trip to Asia came on the heels of a foreign ministers’ meeting involving the four Quad members — India, Australia, Japan and the US. The four countries will also participate in the Malabar Naval exercise from 3-6 November, with Australia making a comeback to the drill after 13 years.

Also Read: India should not feel alone as it confronts Chinese Communist Party, US’ Mike Pompeo says

His itinerary     

Pompeo’s trip to Asia began with India, where he arrived with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper for the bilateral 2+2 ministerial dialogue. 

During this trip, Pompeo said both sides are “taking steps to strengthen our cooperation against all manner of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party”. 

In an interview to ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Pompeo said India should not feel alone as it begins to stand up against the Chinese Communist Party. 

In Sri Lanka, he referred to the ruling Chinese party as a “predator” even as he described Washington as a “friend and a partner” of Colombo, a claim he reiterated in Male. 

In the Maldives, which is a key strategic country for India as well as China, Pompeo said the US will open a new embassy in Male — the US’ first in the country since they established diplomatic ties in 1966. All these years, the US was managing its affairs there from their embassy in Sri Lanka.

There was, however, some pushback from Colombo — which counts Beijing as one of its main partners in terms of grants and loans — as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that “Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs”. 

This, even as he sought to “appreciate @SecPompeo’s stance on the need 2 strengthen the bilateral relationship & support 4 defence cooperation (sic)”. 

Talking about Pompeo’s trip, former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao said “the Trump administration’s goal is to seek a coalition of alignments and interests that will balance and ultimately offer an effective counter to Chinese influence in the region”. 

“But this is not going to be a one-day match. This is going to be a long-drawn tournament … The Indo-Pacific will be the theatre of such adversarial competition. These are going to be choppy waters,” she added. 

Also Read: Trump or Biden? Doesn’t matter to India-US ties as they’re in a full, strategic embrace

ASEAN region’s China policy undergoing a change? 

The most significant part of his visit, however, was Vietnam and Indonesia, members of ASEAN — Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — which came as the 10-member grouping begins to stand up against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

He visited Indonesia on 28-29 October and Vietnam on 29-30 October.

In Muslim-majority Indonesia, Pompeo highlighted Chinese excesses against the Uyghurs and said the “gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike”.

“The atheist Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince the world that its brutalisation of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang is necessary as a part of its counterterrorism efforts or poverty alleviation, depending on which audience that they are speaking to,” he said.  

He added, “I know that the Chinese Communist Party has tried to convince Indonesians to look away, to look away from the torments your fellow Muslims are suffering.”

In Vietnam, a surprise stopover not part of his original itinerary, he sought “to demonstrate support for a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam”. 

He also discussed “issues in the South China Sea and Mekong regions of mutual concern”, where Chinese activity has triggered worry in Hanoi. 

According to Rao, who has also served as India’s envoy to Sri Lanka, China and the US, while ASEAN (except Laos and Cambodia) is realising the fallout of Chinese “debt diplomacy” — offering debt to gain leverage with a country — and facing territorial disputes with it, it will play a “balancing game”.

“ASEAN prefers balanced multipolarity in the region and a hedging approach vis-a-vis both China and the United States. Having said that, barring Laos and Cambodia, few countries in the grouping really trust China and its ambitions,” she added. 

“They see the fallout of Chinese debt diplomacy and also the roughshod, aggrandising  manner in which China has handled territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the India-China border situation, and also the approach to Taiwan. But ASEAN will play a balancing game in order to safeguard their interests. It is a delicate task but they are adept at it,” she said.

Meera Shankar, former Indian Ambassador to the US, agreed that it is too early to assess how the visit will go down in history, and whether it changes the geopolitical landscape of the region.

“Clearly, Mr Pompeo has his strong anti-communist position. For us, the US is trying to counter the increase in Chinese presence and power in the region. It remains to be seen how this works out,” she said. “But for Maldives and Sri Lanka, China is a major creditor. So it’s better for the US to be present in the region than to be absent.”

Also Read: Allowing US in Maldives to keep China out is a heavy price to pay. So why is India doing it?

What would a Biden presidency mean for this policy?

The US is currently in the midst of a hotly contested election season, and there has been some speculation over whether Washington’s attitude towards China will change if Democratic nominee Joe Biden comes to power.

Under the erstwhile Barack Obama administration, where Biden served as Vice-President, the US sought to counter Beijing’s influence in the region by supporting a major trade deal – Trans-Pacific Partnership – that would have hit China economically.

At a campaign rally in August 2020, Biden had said, “I will put values back at the centre of our foreign policy, including how we approach the US-China relationship.”

But experts say the equations are unlikely to shift majorly under Biden.

“A Biden administration will also have profound concerns about China and the threat posed to hitherto uncontested American power and dominance. Perhaps the rhetoric may be dialled down, and there may be some adjustments on the trade front, on Iran policy, and willingness to dialogue on multilateral issues like climate change, counterterrorism and global health,” Rao said. “But the overall mistrust of Chinese intentions and global ambitions will prevail.”

Also Read: Exploring ayurveda for cancer treatment — the 2+2 India-US pact you didn’t hear about


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