US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to arrive in Vietnam on Thursday in a belated addition to an Asian tour designed to promote America’s foreign policy of checking Chinese influence in the region.
A two-day visit to Hanoi was added on Wednesday to Pompeo’s itinerary, which included earlier stops in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia.
Before the start of the tour, which comes just days before the US presidential election on Tuesday, 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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As tensions have flared between Beijing and Washington, the two countries have sent their top diplomats on international tours to bolster relations in Asia and Europe. Earlier this month, Pompeo travelled to Japan for a meeting with the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and India, which along with the US are the members of the so-called Quad grouping, which seeks to present a united front against an increasingly assertive Beijing.
Also this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a Southeast Asia tour to Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand.
Eduardo Araral, an expert on US-China relations and Vietnam at the National University of Singapore, said Pompeo’s original schedule focused more on South Asia than Southeast Asia, but the US diplomat likely wanted to squeeze in a trip to Vietnam before the US election between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden.
“Pompeo must have read the writing on the wall that Joe Biden might be the next president pretty soon, and that he has to leave some sort of legacy that the US has not abandoned Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and especially Vietnam,” Araral said.
“It’s more for the optics that America will be a friend of Vietnam, with maybe some announcement of sales of defence weapons.”
Araral said that regardless of who won the US election the contest in the South China Sea would continue and that Pompeo’s visit to Vietnam reflected the importance of Southeast Asia in the US-China strategic entanglement.
Relations between China and Vietnam have soured as Beijing has grown more aggressive in asserting its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but analysts say Hanoi is balancing its defence ties with the US and Russia while maintaining trade relations with China.
Pompeo said on Wednesday that US energy firm AES and PetroVietnam would soon sign an agreement for a US$2.8 billion liquefied natural gas project. On the same day, the US embassy in Hanoi said the Vietnam Trade Alliance had signed an agreement to buy up to US$500 million worth of US pork over a three-year period.
Xu Liping, director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Pompeo’s tour was meant to “solidify Trump’s legacy in foreign policy” with a focus on the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
“Vietnam, as the Asean chair this year, is important to Pompeo and the US will not give up on such an opportunity to voice the US’ position ahead of the East Asia Summit and the series of meetings held by Asean next month,” he said.
China was a recurring theme during the rest of Pompeo’s tour. In New Delhi, he signed a defence pact with India for sharing sensitive satellite data, at a time when India and China are locked in an ongoing border stand-off, and in Sri Lanka, he referred to the Chinese Communist Party as a “predator”.
In Maldives, he said the US would open an embassy in the island nation, while in Jakarta he said America would seek out new opportunities to cooperate with Indonesia in the South China Sea.
Araral said Pompeo was keen to show that the US was still a leader in the region despite suggestions it had allowed China a free rein there.
“The bigger message really is that the US has not abandoned its friends,” he said. “So those offers that were made to Sri Lanka, the satellite sharing with India, probably some material cooperation with Vietnam – basically, if you put all of these things together, the main message is that the US is assuming its leadership role in this part of the world.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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