China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized 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 in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, 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.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, 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, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private 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 needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. 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). Even in the 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).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American 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 to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, 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.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that 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 cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

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