In what might turn out to be the Trump Administration’s last week in office, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swung through three Indian Ocean countries after the 2+2 US-India talks in New Delhi earlier this week, bringing the China-US spat to India’s doorstep.
From New Delhi, where he and Defence Secretary Mark Esper held talks with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Pompeo peeled off on an openly anti-China tour of the Indian Ocean, now geographically part of the larger Indo-Pacific region.
Why Indo-Pacific matters
It is a vast area where the US and China have competed for influence for years, and where, more recently, Indian and Chinese interests have come up against each other, specifically in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
After years of trying to regain a slipping foothold in these countries by itself without taking sides in the larger geopolitical rivalry, at times even pushing back on US attempts to expand its footprint in its immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood, New Delhi now appears not to mind the playing out of the superpower rivalry close home, hoping it will help to reduce Chinese influence in the region.
With its military eyeballing Chinese soldiers at the Line of Actual Control, India has embraced a closer relationship with the US, as well as stepped up US engagement in the region. At the recent meeting of the Quad foreign ministers, Jaishankar, like the Australian and Japanese foreign ministers, was careful not to join the anti-China tirade that Pompeo unleashed. But the US-India joint statement took several shots at China, besides Pakistan, in stressing a “rules-based international order” and a “free, open, inclusive, peaceful” Indo-Pacific.
All three countries Pompeo visited – Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia – are strategically vital to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s appears strongest in Sri Lanka, where it has control of the Hambantota port, is making a terminal at the Colombo port and a new city off the Colombo seafront, and is involved in a slew of other infrastructure projects.
3 visits, 1 theme
In all three countries, Pompeo’s message was that China and the Chinese Communist Party are “lawless”, do not respect international rules, ensnare small countries into debt traps, and make irredentist claims on territory that fall within the boundaries of other nations, and that the Trump administration was there to prevent that.
SRI LANKA: In Colombo, he said the Chinese Communist Party was a “predator” while “the US comes in a different way, we come as a friend, as a partner”. The Chinese Embassy hit back with a tweet: “Sorry Secretary @SecPompeo, we’re buys promoting #China-#SriLAnka friendship and co-operation, not interested in your AlienvsPredator game at your invitation.The US can play two roles at the same time as always”. Even before Pompeo’s arrival, the Chinese embassy said in a statement that the US was trying to interfere in China-Sri Lanka relations and “coerce and bully” Colombo.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also refuted Pompeo’s assertion that Sri Lanka was caught in a debt trap with the Chinese. In a statement, President Gotabaya’s office said Beijing had provided crucial assistance to Colombo in the last 10 years, while welcoming “more American investment”. Rajapaksa told Pompeo that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was not aligned to any power.📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
MALDIVES: In the Maldives, which signed a “framework defence and security agreement” with the US in September, Pompeo repeated that the “Chinese Communist Party continues its lawless and threatening behaviour” and announced the opening of an embassy in Male. Earlier, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka had concurrent charge of Maldives. India, which had prevented a US-Maldives defence treaty back in 2013, welcomed the new agreement saying it was in line with India’s interests and regional stability.
Since 2018, when Ibrahim Solih became President, the country has scrapped an earlier tilt toward Beijing, and recast its foreign policy to reflect other long-standing ties, including with India.
There have been some voices in the Maldives against striking too close a friendship with the US, and India. In recent days, after rumours that Indian soldiers would be stationed in the Maldives, a local news outlet had wanted information under the Maldives’ Right to Information Act about the number of Indian defence personnel in the country, but the Maldives National Defence Force said it could not disclose this information for reasons of security. On Tuesday, the Maldivian Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the MNDF.
During Pompeo’s visit, former Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, who backs the Solih government, struck a cautionary note: “We all want a peaceful Indian Ocean, I urge the US to respect the independence of Maldives. Please respect the right of Maldives to keep its friendship with all countries that benefit our development. We do not want to engage in power struggles & rivalries in the Indo-Pacific.”
INDONESIA: In Jakarta, which is also the headquarters of ASEAN, some of whose members are faced with Chinese claims on their territory, Pompeo lauded both Indonesia and ASEAN for standing up to China.
“Our law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims by Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea as is clear from Indonesia’s courageous leadership on this subject within ASEAN and at the United Nations,” he said. He was scheduled to meet the Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday before flying out to Vietnam on the last leg of this unusual trip.
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