Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up visits to India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Vietnam during which he warned his counterparts that China poses a security threat to regional stability that requires a firm response. While careful never to mention China by name, Pompeo’s exhortations captured the recent downward trajectory of US-China relations.
During his tenure, the US has become significantly more hawkish toward China, with the two countries embroiled in an ever-expanding list of disputes that includes everything from trade to technology. Faced with growing pressure to resolve these disputes, Pompeo used this trip to lay out his strategy for countering China’s growing influence in Asia-Pacific: condemning China for its human rights abuses and pursuing military and economic containment. In trying to sway his counterparts to adopt these measures, Secretary Pompeo argued that China does not and will not respect their sovereignty in its dealings and is therefore a regional security threat that must be dealt with.
For the first leg of the tour, Secretary Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper met their Indian counterparts, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, for the third annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. In addition to discussing healthcare collaboration in the wake of the pandemic, the two sides discussed deepening defense cooperation on several fronts.
The most important product of these discussions was an agreement to share sensitive satellite data that can be used to steer missiles and drones. Once finalized, this agreement will allow for both countries to leverage one another’s geospatial intelligence collection capabilities to identify and strike enemy targets. In addition to information sharing, both sides agreed to expand defense trade, which has grown from US$0 to US$15 billion since 2008. Crucially, the Indian side expressed a strong interest in deepening its commitment to the “Quad,” an emerging security partnership among Australia, India, the US, and Japan that China accuses of serving as a “mini-NATO” in Asia.
Although India had pursued a strategy of “non-alignment” during the Cold War and traditionally eschewed confrontation on the world stage, the US is hoping that clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayas will encourage New Delhi to finally pick a side. In addition to simmering border disputes, the Modi administration is concerned about the construction by China in neighboring countries of deep-water ports that could potentially be refitted as naval facilities for China’s rapidly growing navy. To prevent military encirclement, India may look to the US for help to keep the Chinese navy out of the Indian Ocean.
Despite these dynamics, the country remains wary of becoming too staunchly a US ally for fear of alienating Chinese investment, which Prime Minister Modi courted with great fervor earlier in his term. Unlike other US allies in regions such as Japan and Australia, India remains a lower-middle income country, and its leaders are less willing to sacrifice a lucrative economic relationship. To ascertain whether India has moved firmly into the American camp, look out for a deal in the coming years that opens up Indian military infrastructure for use by the US military.
Maldives and Sri Lanka
During the second leg of his tour, Secretary Pompeo shifted focus from military containment to economic engagement. The Maldives and Sri Lanka are small island nations with large development needs that have participated in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. After turning over Hambantota port to its Chinese creditors, Sri Lanka became the poster child for China’s alleged “debt-trap diplomacy,” the practice of saddling impoverished countries with debt with the intention of extracting political or economic concessions upon default. Meanwhile, according to a top aid to the current Maldivian President, the Maldives owes somewhere on the order of US$3 billion to China’s EXIM (Export Import) Bank after its last President splurged on infrastructure projects sponsored by China through OBOR.
While the intent behind China’s global development initiatives is hotly debated, Secretary Pompeo has regularly accused China of dealing in bad faith with smaller countries and attempted to draw a strong contrast between the values driving America’s and China’s supposed modi operandi. On Sri Lankan TV, he made his case to viewers:
“What America offers almost always is companies and private investment, partnerships, and friendship. That’s how we roll in the United States. We won’t show up with state-sponsored enterprises. We won’t show up with debt packages that a country can’t possibly repay. We won’t attempt to use that debt to extort actions by the government.”
In terms of concrete actions, Secretary Pompeo announced that the US would soon open an embassy in the Maldives. As China solidifies its maritime presence in the Indian Ocean through ports and other related infrastructure projects, building influence in the island nation located at the nexus of global maritime trade routes within the region has clear strategic value.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives, while receptive to US engagement, remain wary of becoming entangled in the US-China rivalry. The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went so far as to post on Twitter that “#SriLanka will always maintain a neutral stand in foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs.” Because the US and China are important export markets and sources of FDI, Sri Lanka and the Maldives aim to maintain positive working relationships with both countries and, to the extent possible, play them off one another.
The third leg of Secretary Pompeo’s tour took him to Jakarta where he delivered public remarks that focused on America and Indonesia’s protections for religious freedom and attempted to contrast them with China’s internment of Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Secretary Pompeo praised Indonesia for pushing ASEAN to condemn violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and beseeched it to do same with China by appealing to the cultural ties that Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, has with China’s Uighur minority.
Yet another piece of the puzzle that is the US strategy to counter China’s influence fell into place as Secretary Pompeo made a values-based case against closer ties with China. However, similar appeals to Muslim-majority countries to punish China for its treatment of minorities have fallen flat elsewhere in the Muslim world. China, for example, remains a major Pakistani defense partner and investor.
While content to criticize smaller countries such as Myanmar for their treatment of Muslim minorities, different standards apply the economic bohemoth that is China, much like they do to the US. This is a trend commonly found elsewhere in the Muslim world, wherein several Arab countries have signed deals normalizing relations with Israel to not only strengthen defense ties in the face of a common Iranian threat, but also to open up new opportunities for investment. As development concerns take center stage and illiberalism becomes more mainstream, the battle for influence with China, now an economic superpower that offers a huge export market and opportunities for financing, will not be won solely with appeals to shared liberal values.
An unexpected addition to the itinerary, Vietnam featured last in the Secretary’s itinerary. Unlike the previous countries, Vietnam shares with China a similar political system and ideological grounding that has provided a touchstone for the countries’ tumultuous relationship. Both nations have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, and while Vietnam has compartmentalized its maritime disputes in the past to make progress in other areas such as trade and investment, the South China Sea issue is now taking a toll on bilateral relations. While Vietnam’s defense policy of “3 No’s” (No alliances, no foreign bases on Vietnamese soil, and no aligning with a second against a third country) limits the degree to which it can cooperate with other countries in the security space, the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s recent port call in Da Nang demonstrates that other options exist for cooperation.
Deep-set concerns, spurred by China’s expansionist behavior in the South China Sea and its aggressive pursuit of territorial claims elsewhere, have left its neighbors, first and foremost Vietnam, feeling insecure about their sovereignty. Secretary Pompeo sought to speak to these concerns during his time in Hanoi, arguing that China, as opposed to the US, does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors.
As elsewhere, there are limits to his persuasion. Vietnam’s core interest is protecting its sovereignty, and in the face of expansionism from its northern neighbor, diversifying its diplomatic relations would insure it against a relationship of dependence with China. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Secretary’s framing earlier in the tour of shared liberal values as the foundation for positive relations with the US resonated well with Vietnam’s socialist leadership. Distrustful of both the US and China yet cognizant of the benefits of engagement, Vietnam will seek to balance its relationships with the two superpowers.
A long road forward
America’s emerging strategy for countering China’s influence received its trial by fire last week. While certain aspects emerged unscathed, others withered on touch. The principal concerns for the countries that Secretary Pompeo visited were economic development and sovereign claims, and they were all outwardly wary of entanglement. As a result, security partnerships, which connote political alignment, will likely develop at a much slower rate than economic ties.
Condemnations of China’s human rights abuses were not reciprocated by the Secretary’s counterparts for the entire length of his tour. Given these realities, the most important prong of the US strategy remains economic containment. To successfully counter China’s influence in the region, developing robust alternatives to China’s international development programs such as OBOR offer the most realistic path forward. If Secretary Pompeo believed that he could remold Southeast Asia as a buffer against China much as the US rebuilt Europe as a buffer against the USSR via values-based alliances, he is dearly mistaken. Both China and the US are in for the long haul in the competition for regional influence.