US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s five-nation Asian tour rebranded Washington’s relationship with the region around the problem of China, signalling that Beijing has reshaped American diplomatic priorities, analysts say.
Ahead of his trip last week – and before Vietnam had been added to the itinerary – Pompeo said it “would include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party”.
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While in New Delhi, Pompeo signed intelligence sharing agreements with India, and said the US would stand with India defending its sovereignty as the India-China border dispute in Ladakh continued.
In Colombo, Pompeo said the Chinese Communist Party was a “predator”, and promised to step up US trade and investment with Sri Lanka.
In the Maldives, Pompeo officiated at the opening of a new US embassy, before going to Indonesia.
Even his stop in the Maldives, a small nation of half a million people, could be seen as a response to China’s increased infrastructure and investment projects on the island in recent years, said Andrew Small, a research fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
“Not so long ago, a US secretary of state wouldn’t even have considered a visit to the Maldives,” he said.
Pompeo said he added a stop in Vietnam to “reaffirm the strength of the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership”.
Rajesh Basrur, a visiting professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the tour marked a shift in Washington’s long-term strategy to counter China’s rising influence in the Asia-Pacific.
“During the Obama administration, the ‘pivot to Asia’ was more focused on the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. But under Trump the US is extending this further west to the Indian Ocean,” he said.
“A key linking all the countries on Pompeo’s itinerary is China.”
China was especially sensitive to the trip, striking back at Pompeo during every stop of his journey.
Even before Pompeo arrived in Colombo, China’s embassy in Sri Lanka issued a statement warning the US not to bully the small island nation and accused the US delegation of being an “imported risk” to the island nation, citing the high number of coronavirus cases in the United States.
On his departure, China’s embassy flipped Pompeo’s predator comment on its head, accusing the secretary of being the real predator in the region in a message on its official Twitter account.
Beijing’s response to Pompeo’s visit shows that China is worried that Washington may chip away the influence it has built up in the Pacific.
On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry accused Pompeo of sowing discord among nations with his tour.
“For China, Pompeo’s goal is very clear: it’s to pull in other countries toward the US,” said Wang Dehua, a South Asia specialist at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies.
“Even though China is in the middle of disagreements with countries like India, these Asian countries are realistic and will choose to work with China for their own economic long-term self-interest, and not fall into the US’s pocket,” he said.
China is Indonesia’s top trading partner and India’s third-largest.
Wang said China would not stand idly by as Asian neighbours such as India sought to boost ties with the US.
“In the case of India, they may play the US card to get leverage with China. So why can’t China play some cards too? It has lots of cards to play: like the Kashmir card, or Ladakh card,” he said.
A months-long border conflict in the mountainous border region between China and India has led to a souring of ties between the world two most populous nations. But India’s shift toward stronger defence ties with the US has had knock-on effects in South Asia.
“Many in Beijing, aware of the strong anti-US lobbies in India, assumed that such a pairing would not take place. The pace of relations under Trump and Modi must have surprised them,” said Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at India’s Manipal University.
India’s shift towards the US has likely opened doors for greater cooperation with its neighbours Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where India has a strong presence. The Maldives signed a security agreement with Washington in September, following years of warm relations with China.
“With India as a declared partner, Pompeo is on a stronger wicket to go to the Maldives and Sri Lanka,” Nalapat said.
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