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COMMENTARY

Pompeo pump-primes US Asia-Pacific strategy

MIKE Pompeo starts an important India trip on Tuesday as part of a wider three-nation visit which includes stop-offs in two other key allied nations - Japan and South Korea. This latest tour, on the back of his previous visits to the region as Secretary of State, will see 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 Mr Pompeo senses, right now, in the Indo-Pacific (the 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 that New Delhi, which is also wary of Beijing's rise to power, is the first pit stop for Mr Pompeo before he heads to Japan - to push negotiations for a bilateral trade treaty and for the G-20 summit - and then to South Korea where the nuclear talks with the North will be top of the table.

To be sure, there are 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, Mr Pompeo wants this week's talks to go as well as possible, building on the meetings he and then-Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had last year with their then counterparts - External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The deepening of the US-India relationship is centred 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 in enabling India to potentially act as a growing regional counterweight to China.

In the words of the US State Department on Friday, "India is a crucial partner in the Trump administration's vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It shares our concerns about challenges to our shared interests in the region".

To this end, Washington declared New Delhi a major US defence partner in 2016. And last September Mr Pompeo helped finalise a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), underpinning greater counter-terrorism and defence cooperation, which Ms 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, with its own ambitious "Belt and Road" scheme. Hence, why the Secretary of State has spent time during his previous trips there 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 US$113 million in regional investments focused on technology, energy and infrastructure that, in the Secretary of State's words, represents "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 - including India, Japan and South Korea - 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, a subject that Mr Pompeo will discuss in Japan, but this has so far had only very limited success with no TPP signatories yet finalising any such US agreements.

CONCERNS OVER US INFLUENCE

And the added pressure on the White House here is China's monumental ambition in comparison as illustrated by 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 has called "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 Apec. In this context, the Obama team's TPP was only the latest example of a global institutional-building project that began in the post-World War II to embed US influence and encourage growth of democracy and open markets.

It is in this context that Mr Pompeo's plan must be judged, and he will try again this week 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 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. 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 China, and real questions remain about the ambition of the Trump team's regional strategy at a moment of significant geopolitical flux.

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