Pompeo’s Fruitless Final Foray in Asia

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his latest and probably his last trip in office to Asia. He was on a mission to persuade these countries to join it in an anti-China coalition under the cover of the US concept of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) .The trip appears to have been a failure based on fallacies.

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his latest and probably last trip in office to Asia – visiting in succession, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia, and, added at the last minute, Vietnam. The U.S.’s external face of its foreign policy as well as its chief salesperson thereof was on a mission to persuade these countries to join it in an anti-China coalition under the cover of the US concept of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). At every stop he criticized China’s actions and in particular, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  To Pompeo and apparently the U.S., “securing our freedom from the CCP is the mission of our time.” What he heard in return was concern with his exclusive approach and arrogant style as well as refusal to jump on the bandwagon.  The trip appears to have been a failure based on fallacies.

The U.S.– and China’s actions in Ladakh and the Indian Ocean– may be nudging India out of its non-aligned status – despite its protestations to the contrary. The US-India Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement signed during his visit will facilitate closer military cooperation and interoperability. Under previous governments, India had refused to sign the pact because it could theoretically give potential “control” to the U.S. of India’s military operations. But it is not clear if India will open its military facilities to US assets. India has allowed the U.S. to refuel and obtain logistics support for an armed Poseidon P8 at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. This may have been a one-off or it may have been the beginning of a pattern. Given the resurgence of the Quad—a clearly anti-China grouping—it may well be the latter.  If so, China will likely consider that by its actions India is for practical military purposes no longer “non-aligned”.

However, unless China does something really stupid to push India over the edge, it will be a long-contested process before India would directly join the U.S. in an anti-China coalition—if ever.  Indeed, just after Pompeo’s visit, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla reiterated that India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific region was distinct from that of the U.S. and not aimed at containing China.

In Sri Lanka, when Pompeo raised ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ as a warning against getting too close to China, its President Gotabaya Rajapaksa denied that Sri Lanka was caught in a debt trap.  Moreover, he declared that Sri Lanka is non-aligned and will stay that way.  “Sri Lanka will always maintain a neutral standing foreign policy and will not get entangled in struggles between power blocs.”

Indonesia must have been a big disappointment as well.  Eying Indonesia’s disputes with China in the South China Sea, Pompeo must have thought that he could convince the de facto leader of ASEAN to join its efforts to contain China. Prior to his meetings with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and President Joko Widodo he said “he wanted to find the best way to co-operate to preserve a Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, the construct that the U.S. has created to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative and contain its challenge to the US- led  ‘international order’.  He added that he wanted to discuss “how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”  This may have been a veiled reference to Indonesia’s bitter experience more than a half century ago with its own communist party supported at the time by many ethnic Chinese. But most realize that China is no longer trying to spread its communist ideology – unlike the U.S. missionary zeal to proselytize its version of democratic capitalism.  Seizing upon Indonesia’s resistance to incursions in its Exclusive Economic Zone by Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard, Pompeo praised “the example Indonesia has set with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands”.

But Indonesia’s leaders were having little or none of it.   Instead of agreement with his policy initiative he got an earful. Perhaps most jarring was Jokowi telling Pompeo that he wanted the U.S. to understand the interests of developing countries, Muslim countries and Southeast Asian countries. As for the U.S.’s FOIP construct, Retno reminded Pompeo of Indonesia’s “free and independent” foreign policy which prioritizes inclusivity, nonalignment and ASEAN centrality. She “reemphasized the need to pursue inclusive co-operation amid this challenging time _ _ _.” Retno pointedly added that Indonesia’s relations with the U.S. could not be “taken for granted” and that Indonesia wanted to see more ‘mutual understanding’. On 2 November the US extended preferential trade terms for Indonesia. Its possible discontinuance had been a sore point during his visit. It is not clear what the US got or expected in return but I doubt that it will be sufficient for Indonesia to jump aboard the US -led anti-China bandwagon.

Pompeo’s last minute stop in Vietnam appeared to be an attempt to salvage the mission.  Vietnam has been ASEAN’s most critical member regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea – both diplomatically and kinetically.  The U.S. sees an opening here and is trying to exploit it.  But Vietnam has a long standing policy of not aligning with another country against a third. Moreover, it knows that Pompeo’s anti-communist and human rights rhetoric against China may eventually be applied to it.  Vietnam will use tit-for-tat in defending its perceived maritime rights against China. But it is rightfully wary of pushing China too far and assisting the U.S. in its military containment policy would do so.

The trip’s mission and message were the wrong tone and tenor at the wrong time to the wrong audience.  For many Southeast Asians, Pompeo’s style is arrogant and offensive. Moreover, his message was tone deaf to a region suffering from a pandemic with its economy in free fall and its need for its principle economic partner China crystal clear.  These states—even India—do not want to be forced to choose between the current hegemon and their burgeoning permanent neighbor. The region has many reservations regarding the US FOIP initiative and Pompeo ran recklessly headlong into them.  Most do not use democratic values as a litmus test in their foreign relations. Moreover, several—besides China– question key aspects of the existing US led international order built and solidified when they were too weak and disorganized to have significant impact. The US interpretation of freedom of navigation for military vessels and intelligence probes is among them.

The mission seemed based on the assumption that most Southeast Asian nations share the US view that China is a dangerous and predatory power. If so, Pompeo discovered that this assumption is false and that resistance to join the U.S. in its struggle against China is quite deep and widespread. As Indonesia’s former deputy foreign minister Dino Patti Djalal said there are great “differences between ASEAN countries and the US in their perception of China, as well as differences between ASEAN countries’ unique perceptions of China and the US and their struggle.” A lack of appreciation of these differences resulted in the failure of the mission.

This diplomatic foray and its opportunistic aggressiveness reveals US naivete’ and misunderstanding of the region, its interests and immediate needs. It was an overall embarrassment and Pompeo and his advisors should be admonished for their miscalculations. The US needs to reevaluate and revise its approach if it wants to have any hope of gaining support for its anti-China coalition.

Another version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. 

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Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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