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Donald Trump

Trump’s Asia strategy: send Vice-President Pence on whirlwind tour to try counter China’s dominance

  • The deputy leader of the US will attend Apec and Asean summits, as well as visit key allies Australia and Japan
  • US-China talks expected to restart on Friday in effort to cool tensions on trade and security
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 9:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 11:58am

More than a dozen Pacific nations will convene in the capital of Papua New Guinea next week, where US Vice-President Mike Pence will lay out the next phase of the Trump administration’s ever evolving Asia strategy. His task is to convince the countries of Southeast Asia that the United States and its allies can offer them better options than capitulation to Chinese economic regional dominance.

With the midterm elections behind it and China-US talks restarting in an attempt to cool tensions between the two, the Trump administration has made a clear turn towards foreign policy.

President Donald Trump will visit Paris later this week and Argentina for the Group of 20 summit at the end of the month. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to arrange a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while Pence, who rolled out the new US approach to China last month, is headed to Asia for a week-long tour that will culminate in a major speech on the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy at a meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders on a ship off the coast of Port Moresby.

Pence’s whirlwind Asia tour – his third since taking office – will also take him to Japan, Singapore and Australia, representing the United States at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit and the East Asia Summit. These three conferences comprise the most important diplomatic gatherings of Asian leaders each year. Pence will also meet leaders of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand along the way.

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His trip comes at a crucial juncture in the US relationship with countries in Southeast Asia and the Trump administration’s strategy on China.

“He’s going to the region with an affirmative message to talk about what we and our partners are doing across the region to reinforce the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said a senior White House official.

The idea is to put meat on the bone of the Asia strategy Trump unveiled at last year’s Apec meeting in Vietnam. Pence is not going to the region to criticise the Chinese government directly, as he did in his recent speech. The plan is to argue that the US vision for the region is better for those countries economically and politically – and that the US commitment there is real.

The vice-president’s trip also comes hot on the heels of resumed US and China talks, which were set to restart on Friday after months of spiralling tension. The two powers are hoping to find a way forward on disputes from trade to military friction.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis were expected to spend Friday morning with two high-ranking Chinese policymakers. Trump is also expected to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Friday’s talks were expected to focus on security and trade. Trump has slapped US$250 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods, accusing Beijing of nefarious trading practices, prompting retaliatory measures.

While some of the Trump administration’s comments on China have prompted commentators to draw parallels to the cold war, Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to Beijing, said that Washington was not seeking confrontation for its own sake.

“We want this to be a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China. The US is not trying to contain China, but we want fairness and reciprocity,” Branstad told reporters on the eve of the talks.

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But whether the countries of Southeast Asia believe the Trump administration has the capability or focus to put forth a real alternative to China’s comprehensive regional expansion is another question.

Beijing has been flooding Southeast Asia with billions of dollars in infrastructure projects and other investments as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. So far, the United States’ counterproposals have been light on actual resources.

Officials said the vice-president is preparing announcements that will add more substance to the US argument that private investment by American companies – along with US government support for governance and technological infrastructure development – is healthier than China’s often predatory lending schemes.

One Belt, One Road is a one-way street ... It is a political and geostrategic ploy
Trump administration official

“One Belt, One Road is a one-way street,” the senior administration official said. “It is a political and geostrategic ploy by the Chinese government to insinuate themselves into the politics of countries and advance military basing options under the guise and rubric of development assistance.”

There’s good reason to think Southeast Asian nations are open to the US pitch. The new governments in Malaysia and the Maldives have sought to undo the huge and hugely corrupt infrastructure deals their predecessors struck with Beijing. Chinese projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka have shown that taking massive loans on unfair terms can have grim consequences for a country’s financial and territorial sovereignty.

Southeast Asian nations do not want to be forced to choose between China and the United States, and many are still sore about Trump exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When it comes to Asia, Trump has been more focused on tariffs than making deals. But on infrastructure and investment, the United States has more to offer since Congress passed the Build Act, which could provide up to US$60 billion for private development financing.

Offering real competition to Beijing’s massive investment scheme is not just about economics, especially not for the Chinese government, according to David Shullman, senior adviser at the International Republican Institute. He said these Chinese programmes are used to cultivate regional leaders, which then enables China to neuter democratic institutions and roll back liberal norms.

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“China’s willingness to invest heavily in developing countries irrespective of good governance bolsters the fortunes of illiberal leaders who take credit for Chinese investment and dilutes Western leverage to press for human rights and rule of law reforms,” Shullman said.

In other words, economics is emerging as the key battleground in the greater competition between China and the world’s democracies over who will decide the regional and world order for the next decades. The Trump administration has correctly articulated the strategic challenge, but now the United States must put its money where its mouth is.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse