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COMMENTARY

Is Trump team awry with Asia-Pacific ambitions?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Singapore on Friday and Saturday for the first time since the landmark summit in June with Kim Jong Un. While this trip will generate less global headlines, it has potentially high significance too with the Trump team facing criticism over the scale of its strategic ambition in the Asia-Pacific vis-a-vis China.

Mr Pompeo will meet counterpart foreign ministers from Asean and Australia, China, South Korea and Russia. However, he has already set the trip's tone, delivering a set-piece speech on Monday articulating plans for a "new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region" (Indo-Pacific is the Trump team's preferred phraseology for the Asia-Pacific, given US encouragement of India to act as a regional counterweight to China).

Mr Pompeo's speech included plans for some US$113 million in regional investments focused on technology, energy and infrastructure. In the Secretary of State's words, this represents "just a down payment" on US commitment to the region, and includes US$25 billion to expand US technology exports, and around US$50 billion to help countries produce and store their energy resources.

Welcome as details of the administration's emerging plan are for some US allies - especially coming after US President Donald Trump's 12-day trip to Asia earlier this year which was the longest to the region by any American president since the 1990s - it already faces criticism that it will have less impact that the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To be sure, the Trump team has also announced that it wants to pursue bilateral trade deals in the region, but this has so far had only very limited success with no TPP signatories yet finalising any such US agreements.

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The added pressure on the White House here is China's huge ambition, as shown in its commitment to the US$1 trillion Belt and Road scheme, plus its alternative vision to TPP of a Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific (FTAAP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Inevitably, this has led to concerns about future US influence in the region, with, for instance, former Obama administration US 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 aside of the Trump team's plan, history also points to the apparent under ambition of current US strategy towards what Mr Pompeo rightly called on Monday the "most competitive part of the world for years to come". Since 1945, US administrations of both Republican and Democratic stripes helped create and nurture key global and regional bodies and institutions that exist to this day - from the UN to the IMF and World Bank that have helped embed US influence.

Inspired by this post-war success, both the administrations of George HW Bush and especially Bill Clinton sought to respond to the collapse of Soviet Communism by encouraging creation of a range of institutions including not just the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in the region, but also the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) too. In this context, a key ambition for the Obama team with TPP - around a quarter of a century after Washington helped create Apec - had been embedding a new international framework in the region. From this perspective, a US-dominated TPP would thus have been only the latest example of a global institutional-building project that began post-World War II to encourage growth of democracy and open markets across the world.

COMMITTED TO THE REGION

It is into this context that Mr Pompeo steps in Singapore where he will try 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 the new US plan is - so far at least - dwarfed in size to that of the Belt and Road initiative, the US model being promoted is more sustainable adhering 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 under the Belt and Road's stress on state infrastructure projects. For example, China has made a commitment of around US$$60 billion to Pakistan alone. While this US message will resonate with some, other key regional players will be nonetheless torn by the massive scale of potential financing offered by Beijing.

Added to this is China's alternative regional trade vision to TPP of a FTAAP plus RCEP which would shape the regional order and cement its influence in it. From China's perspective, RCEP and FTAAP would be much more conducive to its national interests than TPP (not least because it would be explicitly part of the new economic agreements and shape their design) by creating free trade areas with China potentially at the centre. In the past, Beijing has also expressed hopes that FTAAP could evolve into a broader regional cooperation blueprint in areas such as transportation from air traffic to highways and rail.

Taken overall, Mr Pompeo's speech has rekindled the competition with China for the regional economic integration agenda. While longstanding US allies will welcome his new commitments, questions will remain about the ambition of the Trump team's regional strategy, especially given the magnitude of Beijing's own plans.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics