Against a backdrop of China’s rising economic and military power, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo arrived in the Thai capital of Bangkok this week with a difficult mission: Try to win back lost ground in Southeast Asia, a region once dominated by the U.S.
Under President Donald Trump, U.S. leverage in Southeast Asia has continued a slide that began during the Obama administration. Trump’s early decision to pull out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — President Barack Obama’s attempt to cement American influence and counter China’s in the region — angered and frustrated the U.S. allies, who to the surprise of some decided to forge ahead on the trade agreement without the U.S.
America’s waning power is also apparent in the Trump administration’s fight to pressure and isolate the Chinese communications giant Huawei, a campaign that has drawn little support from Southeast Asian nations. And several of those countries are increasingly nervous about getting caught up in Washington’s trade war with China.
Pompeo, who will meet with top government officials from 10 Southeast Asian nations representing 650 million people, said he was confident the Trump administration’s efforts were deepening and widening U.S. engagement in a strategically important part of the world.
But he downplayed the U.S.-China rivalry, saying his goal was not to win “back” allies, and telling reporters traveling with him that it was “rude” to suggest some countries in the region were “vassal states” in the “clutches of China.”
“They are looking for partners,” he said. “It’s not about luring them back.”
On Thursday, Pompeo stepped lightly when he opened the ASEAN conference here, avoiding mention of China when he said the U.S. will “not ever” ask a nation in the region “to choose between countries.”
“Our engagement in this region has not been and will not be a zero-sum exercise,” Pompeo added. “Our interests simply naturally converge with yours to our mutual benefit.”
Pompeo is also attempting to solidify another initiative of his tenure: creation of the so-called Indo-Pacific region, which portends to redraw boundaries to stretch from the U.S. West Coast to Japan, down through Southeast Asia to Australia and west across another ocean to India. It is replacing the familiar Asia-Pacific region and incorporates India (while sidelining Pakistan) to expand U.S. heft against China.
China has not been shy about pouring tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure projects as part of its mammoth Belt and Road initiative, promising to boost transport systems and connectivity to help drive a sustained period of growth and stepping in where the U.S. often isn’t.
Thanks in part to China’s investment, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has posted a combined economic-output growth of 50% in the last decade.
But China’s rise has sparked some backlash in the region. Malaysia canceled certain Belt and Road projects because of what it viewed as unfavorable terms. Other countries are worried about Beijing’s efforts to use infrastructure projects for military purposes.
The South China Sea is a case in point. China has steadily built up and is militarizing the sea’s scattered islands and shoals, which other nations also claim. The maritime and territorial disputes with Beijing have roiled the region.
Pompeo said the Cambodian government, in a meeting Thursday, denied reports that it was prepared to allow Chinese troops to use a Cambodian naval base, which would have been the People’s Liberation Army’s first outpost in Southeast Asia. Pompeo urged other countries to follow Cambodia’s example.
China’s inroads, however, are undeniable, as is America’s decline.
After Trump in 2017 walked away from the TPP trade agreement, U.S. meat and agricultural exports to those nations suffered, experts said.
Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, described the TPP withdrawal as a decision that U.S. relations with Southeast Asia “will never recover from.”
“No one really has a lot of faith that America is staying in the region or that our presence in the region is durable,” Abuza said. “We’re looking so transactional right now. We walk away from agreements we sign. We don’t look reliable.”
Many Southeast Asian governments have also recoiled at what they see as U.S. efforts to force them to take sides in the trade dispute with China.
Apart from Vietnam, no country in the region has agreed to join the U.S. boycott of Huawei, despite the Trump administration’s warnings that the U.S. could cease sharing sensitive information with countries that use the company’s technology.
The two U.S. treaty allies in the region — Thailand and the Philippines — are both headed by governments that have sought closer ties with China. Huawei is testing ultra-fast 5G service in Thailand, and next month the Philippines is expected to roll out Southeast Asia’s first 5G mobile data service, powered by Huawei technology.
Philippine officials told the Los Angeles Times in June they had found no evidence to support U.S. allegations that Huawei’s equipment could be a Trojan horse for Chinese spies.
“It’s not that the argument (on Huawei) is misguided or inaccurate; it’s just late, and there was never an American alternative,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based analyst and author of the 2017 book “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China.”
“On whatever issue you want to point to … there’s almost none in which the U.S. is advancing its interests in the region at a faster pace than China,” Zawacki said.
Here in Bangkok, Pompeo’s Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, appeared as conciliatory as America’s top diplomat. After the two held a 30-minute bilateral meeting, Wang emerged to say that “no matter how many problems, it is important for both sides to sit down and have face-to-face discussions.”
Pompeo said later on Twitter that he was ready to cooperate with China “when it advances U.S. interests.” And in a news conference Thursday evening, he said: “We were also very candid about the places we are hoping China will behave in the ways that they are not behaving.”
(Bengali reported from Singapore.)
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