US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has cut short his Asia trip after Donald Trump and other senior officials tested positive for Covid-19.
The State Department confirmed he will still visit Tokyo on Sunday, where he will meet counterparts from Australia, India and Japan for security talks between the strategic Quad grouping, seen as a response to growing Chinese power.
However, he has cancelled plans to visit South Korea and Mongolia.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert from Renmin University in Beijing, said Pompeo’s shortened trip to Asia would not change the anti-China “new normal” heralded by the Trump administration.
“The big picture remains the same that the US is pushing the Quad as a new frontline to go against China,” Shi said.
“The US will actively form and enhance anti-China alliances with other countries in the region – Mongolia, for instance, may build closer ties with Japan and the US in the future,” he said.
Analysts said Pompeo was likely to raise concerns about China’s growing strategic influence abroad, as Trump’s administration ramps up its criticism of Beijing – notably over its coronavirus pandemic response – ahead of the US election in November.
Pang Zhongying, a specialist in international relations at Ocean University of China, said: “There are reasons for Pompeo to visit Japan despite Trump’s infection, such as Japan has a new Prime Minister and the Quad meeting in Japan. Regardless of his itinerary change, Trump’s major foreign policies will continue, and this include partnering more regional countries to counter Chinese influence.”
Beijing has lashed out at Pompeo in particular for “playing up his ‘China threat’ theory around the world”, as he sounds the alarm globally on issues such as the sustainability of Chinese investments and security of Chinese technology.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at Washington-based Stimson Centre, said: “Beijing sees US criticisms of China as motivated by ulterior motives, that it’s not about whether what China does is right or wrong, but about the US desire to undermine China’s influence.”
While in Europe this past week, Pompeo was denied an audience with the Pope after his comments warning the Vatican that it “endangers its moral authority” by renewing an agreement with China.
In South America in mid-September, Pompeo spoke about keeping Brazil’s networks safe from Beijing. And in Jerusalem in late August, he spoke with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about “the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to the entire world”.
Two years ago, the Holy See reached an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, hoping to help China's Catholics. Yet the CCP’s abuse of the faithful has only gotten worse. The Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal. https://t.co/fl0TEnYxKS
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 19, 2020
Sun said Beijing may react to Pompeo’s trips by sending senior officials on similar visits, including Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. Wang is in talks to visit Japan in October after having travelled to Mongolia in September, and Yang flew to South Korea in August to pave the way for a trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In Japan, Pompeo will meet his foreign minister counterparts in the Quad for the first time since the pandemic broke out, with a likely focus on joint efforts to counter Beijing and its claims to most of the South China Sea.
Monika Chansoria, senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said this was reflected by India’s deployment of a warship into the South China Sea in August, in the midst of an ongoing crisis at the disputed China-India border since June.
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reportedly has plans to visit Vietnam and Indonesia in October as his first overseas trips in his new role, indicating a focus on Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.
“It could be the beginning of a far more robust approach undertaken throughout the Indo-Pacific by these countries, jointly along with their respective regional partners,” Chansoria said. “The post-Covid-19 world is increasingly going to see an overhauled reassessment of China with wider security implications.”
Despite the cancellation of Pompeo’s visit to Mongolia, relations between Mongolia and China have been badly affected by Beijing’s language policies in Inner Mongolia.
The decision to replace to Mongolian language classes in key subjects with Mandarin has prompted a wave of protests in the Chinese region and extensive criticism in Mongolia.
The country’s former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj wrote to President Xi Jinping to protest against the move, saying it was a “growing atrocity that seeks to dissolve and eliminate Mongolians as an independent ethnicity through their language”.
Oyunsuren Damdinsuren, senior lecturer at the National University of Mongolia, said that while the US was considered to be Mongolia’s “most important third neighbour” after China and Russia, US foreign investment and foreign trade with the country was still negligible. If Pompeo had visited, it would have been an important sign of symbolic support for Mongolia’s democracy, she said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Pompeo to make Japan trip for Indo-Pacific ‘Quad’ meeting in show of unity to China
- Mike Pompeo gets Italian promise on 5G security but doesn’t convince Vatican on bishops deal with China
- Pope cancels Pompeo meeting as China bishops deal up for renewal
- Mike Pompeo urges US states to beware of China’s ‘sinister’ attempts at engagement