THE BELT AND Road Initiative and the United States’ vision for the Indo-Pacific have a common end if different means.
Both are critical components of establishing the two powers’ respective influence over a region that is already well on its way to becoming the world’s economic centre. The former uses state-led infrastructure; the latter seeks to unleash the commercial might of private business, primarily US private business.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of its earliest acts, cemented regional fears among the United States’ allies that the ‘America First’ rhetoric of the Trump campaign in 2016 presaged US withdrawal from the region, leaving a vacuum that China would need little encouragement to fill.
Whatever the validity of that fear — and US commercial imperatives were always going to mitigate against significant disengagement — Washington has had a struggle to reassure its traditional regional allies, who, after all, still have to live cheek-by-jowl with their huge neighbour, regardless of the tweet-du-jour coming from Washington.
The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of both Trump’s putative trade war with Beijing and his intervention in North Korea through a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have kept nerves taught.
While the political scientists hijacked the term Indo-Pacific from the marine biologists and oceanographers slightly more than a decade ago, it has only been over the past five years than it has gained currency with political leaders in the four key Into-Pacific powers, the United States, India, Japan and Australia. In the past year, it has started to take shape as an economic entity.
Today, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, put some more flesh on those bones by announcing $113 million of investment in technology, energy and infrastructure investments in the region. This was, he said, a ‘down payment’ on a new era of US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the region.
US officials say that this commitment is not aimed at countering the Belt and Road Initiative, but the underlining of the transparent and commercially led nature of the investments and the choice of phrases such as ‘strategic partnerships, not strategic dependence’ speak for themselves, as does Pompeo’s assertion that the United States would oppose any country that sought to dominate the region.
The money will go to improving partner countries’ digital connectivity and expanding US technology exports to the region ($25 million), helping regional energy production and storage (some $50 million) and creating a US government agency to support infrastructure development ($30 million). Much of the remainder of the money will go to a fund to let regional nations access US private legal and financial advisory services.
There will not be, it seems, a return of the United States to TPP. Pompeo said that the Trump administration would only be doing bilateral trade deals in the region.
He did, though, trail a coming announcement by US President Donald Trump on regional security assistance, reaffirming the administration’s emerging three-D approach to the region: development, diplomacy and defence.
Compared to, say, the $62 billion that China is providing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the estimated $1 trillion of Belt and Road Initiative projects underway, $113 million looks like small beer, and especially as much of the money will end up delivering export sales of goods and services to US firms. An America First foreign policy is still an America First policy.
The question becomes then, can US business leverage that into a credible competitive alternative model for regional development. Washington’s traditional regional allies will still take some convincing as much as they would like to have a strong counterweight in the United States to China’s growing regional power and influence.