Mike Pompeo’s recent speech titled, ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision – at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum’ at the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington DC has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably, paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized on the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of 113 Million USD in areas like infrastructure, energy and digital economy). The US Secretary of State while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, he did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).
The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.
An article in the Global Times ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geo-political military alliance’ response is significant. What emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, in expressing its skepticism, with regard to the geo-political vision of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:
While the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert
It is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that this would be beneficial, and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that, while the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Mike Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of not just between Indian, Japanese, Chinese, US governments as well as companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as the foam on the sea” “that gets attention but will soon dissipate”
While there is absolutely no doubt, that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision, and BRI especially in the economic sphere. China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision is welcome, but one of the propelling factors is the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. While in South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping 13 Billion USD). Even in ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects, Malaysia which shares close economic ties with Beijing is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).
Second, that while for long the Indo-Pacific Vision has been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ and one of the criticisms has been a lack of gravitas in the economic context (and even now 113 Million USD is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech, indicate that The Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore).
Countries which are key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific narrative need to keep in mind the following:
US needs to walk the course and apart from investing, more it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.
Second, the Indo-Pacific speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but not only are countries becoming more inward looking, even their stand on democracy, and Human Rights is ambiguous. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither US, nor India, Japan or Australia have criticized China for its excesses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.
Finally, there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh China, India Myanmar BCIM Corridor which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.
In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it can not expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important, for countries like US and India to speak up more forcefully on issues (within their domestic contexts, as well as external) pertaining to Freedom of Speech, Human Rights and immigration issues, given that all these are essential for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’