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COMMENTARY

Pompeo seeks Asia traction for US strategy

MIKE Pompeo begins a tricky trip on Wednesday to Pakistan before travelling onto India. This latest tour - on the back of his visit last month to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia - sees the US Secretary of State seeking traction in South Asia for the Trump administration's revamped Indo-Pacific strategy in the face of China's growing strength.

One of the potential windows of opportunity Mr Pompeo senses in Indo-Pacific (the Trump team's preferred phrase for the geography spreading from the US west coast to India) comes with the election of new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. While Mr Khan has deployed much anti-US rhetoric over the years, Mr Pompeo is seeking early engagement with him, especially with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi - who has called Pakistan the "iron brother" of his own nation - due to visit Islamabad later in the week.

The new Pakistani leader is being courted by both Washington and Beijing, with the latter having already made commitments of around US$60 billion to Islamabad under its Belt and Road initiative. Pakistani troops also recently took part in exercises with some 3,000 others from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, including the Chinese military.

While Islamabad had for decades been a significant US ally, the relationship has frayed. This was highlighted in August when a transcript of a phone conversation between Mr Pompeo and Mr Khan, released by the US State Department which referred to the new government "taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan", was disputed as factually inaccurate by Mr Khan's team. It is this vexed terrorism issue which will be the key topic on the agenda on Wednesday between the two men, who will be joined by US Defence Secretary James Mattis. And this conversation will be made no easier by the US military decision on Saturday to cancel US$300 million in aid to Islamabad over what Washington calls its failure to take action against militant groups operating on its soil.

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Mr Mattis has asserted tough talks could be needed and that he and Mr Pompeo will "make very clear what we have to do, all of our nations, in meeting our common foe, the terrorists". It is likely that the US team will put pressure on Mr Khan to act more robustly, and also offer greater support and/or incentives for doing so following US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Joseph Dunford's assertion recently that US interests in the region require "a presence to have influence". What that presence means, in practice, is not 100 per cent clear, and this will be a potentially tense topic of conversation among Mr Pompeo, Mr Khan and Mr Mattis. Should the talks not go well, Pakistani media are quoting officials at the nation's foreign ministry as saying Beijing will need to act as a "protective shield" against US pressure.

INDO-PACIFIC STRATEGY

With the outcome of this Islamabad leg of the tour highly uncertain, Phase 2 of the trip in India is likely to be smoother sailing. To be sure, there are also complications in the Washington-New Delhi relationship, including US calls for India to end its buying of Iranian oil, and threats to levy sanctions if it continues to buy Russian military equipment.

Nevertheless, both Mr Pompeo and Mr Mattis and their counterparts - External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman - want the so-called "two plus two" talks to go well. The deepening of the US-India relationship is centred around 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 the revamped US Indo-Pacific strategy is enabling India to potentially act as a growing regional counterweight to China.

To this end, Washington declared New Delhi a major US defence partner in 2016, and this week's meeting could see potential moves to finalise a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement and US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative underpinning greater counter-terrorism and defence cooperation. Meanwhile, on the trade front, both nations are seeking to address market access challenges through tackling tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Clear movement forward on these issues in India would help bring greater credibility to the US Indo-Pacific strategy which has come under criticism for its perceived (under) ambition vis-a-vis China. Hence why the secretary of state last month articulated his revamped plans for a "new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the region". Welcome as more details of the administration's emerging plan were for many US allies - especially given President Donald Trump's decision Friday not to attend November's Apec and Asean summits -- critics claim that the strategy will have less overall impact than the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership. 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.

In this context, Mr Pompeo has a tough task this week in reassuring sometimes sceptical US regional allies that the Trump team is wholly committed - politically, economically and security-wise - to its Indo-Pacific plan. Even if key successes are achieved in India, and potentially Pakistan too, questions will remain about the strategy's ambition, especially given the scale of China's own plans.

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