US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began his visit to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia with a plan to invest $113 million in the Indo-Pacific region. His goal is clearly to win Southeast Asia’s support to US Indo-Pacific strategy. But what he will face is suspicion from regional countries and their polite yet cautious responses. Mr Pompeo will learn through this trip how difficult it is for Washington to sell its empty Indo-Pacific strategy to the region.
What is the Indo-Pacific strategy? Many complain about its vagueness. Its most innovative part may be the name itself. Washington probably hopes the rest of the world would stop asking questions, tacitly understand Washington’s intentions and firmly gather around the US after a few exchanges of glances and together begin to counter China’s rising influence.
Asean’s worst nightmare is being forced to choose sides between China and the US. Once that occurs, Asean’s geopolitical advantage will immediately turn sour as Asean members will be involved in major country conflicts that they desperately want to avoid. Their current merits will be lost and many smaller countries will have to face unbearable strategic uncertainties.
Asean members are not sure what the US Indo-Pacific strategy entails. The US announced only an investment of $113 million, which also includes India. The amount seems only sufficient to build an overpass perhaps in the center of Mumbai. Washington is using a strategic gimmick. It is insincere about pushing forward economic prosperity of Indo-Pacific region. What it wants is something else.
The Aquino administration of the Philippines was a pawn of US “pivot to Asia” strategy and made itself an example by taking sides between China and the US. Manila gained little advantage on territorial issues and suffered great economic losses. When Rodrigo Duterte came to office, he pulled Manila back to position his country between China and the US and the Philippines has since prospered in terms of both economy and security.
As a concept, Indo-Pacific strategy generated some media and psychological impact. But this is perhaps the only points it can score. If the US wants more, this strategy will be the abyss that consumes much US resources and its output can hardly match its input.
What’s more important, this is not the era where geopolitics rules all. The US has treated China’s Belt and Road initiative, which focuses on mutually beneficial cooperation, as strategic expansion, and is trying to prohibit Asia from marching forward through connectivity. Washington’s move is against historic tide. Even if it plans to invest 100 times its current amount, the investment will be devoured by the historic trend.
Indo-Pacific strategy should be consecrated as the “best geopolitical jargon”. If it is used to counter China’s serious strategy in Asean, the US will eventually find out that it has no supernatural power and that it will bump into an invisible wall.