Assessing Pompeo’s Five-nation Asian Visit
Prof Rajaram Panda

In a rather unusual diplomatic move a week ahead of the important Presidential elections in the United States on 3 November and amid the raging pandemic on a global scale, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided to undertake a five-country tour of Asia, probably the last trip in office to rally support from key Indo-Pacific nations, the significance of which cannot be overlooked. Pompeo visited first India to participate in the third 2+2 ministerial dialogue followed by his visits to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia and added Vietnam in the itinerary at the last moment. The visits showed that the face of the US foreign policy was on a mission to persuade these countries to join an anti-China coalition under the cover of the US concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

It may be instructive to understand the context and background in which Pompeo’s visit becomes important. From all statements issued in the countries Pompeo visited, the overwhelming driver seems to be China’s aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific region which was perceived to be threatening the existing regional order. At every stop, Pompeo criticised China’s actions. This does not mean to suggest that there were no differences between the U.S. and some of the countries Pompeo visited as transpired from the talks with the leaders of the host country but there seems to be no disagreement in the broad perception that China has emerged as a threatening power. Pompeo’s visit was to make the region aware of the risk that China presents and how to cope with the new situation. But what he heard in return were refusals by some countries he visited to jump on the U.S. bandwagon.

With mixed response, does it mean that Pompeo’s failure to convince the Asian nations to turn against China is a wake-up call for US policy hawks? The answer could be both “Yes” and “No”. Traditionally, the foreign policy approaches of most Asian nations after gaining freedom from long colonial rule by the Western powers inclines towards being fiercely independent and they seem largely reluctant to take sides in the ongoing great power competition. While fear of China’s newly-acquired confidence backed by economic and military prowess is real, relevance of China as the new economic powerhouse is a reality that the rest of Asia finds difficult to ignore as economies of countries are increasingly interconnected. Also, there exists a perception in some quarters that aligning with the U.S. closely at the expense of China might not serve their own interests as the U.S. may not have their best interests and needs at heart.1

A number of commentators have analysed Pompeo’s first port of call in India where the third 2+2 ministerial meeting resulted in the signing of the most important Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), enabling India to use American expertise on geospatial intelligence. To put the present analysis in perspective and even at the risk of repeating the points made by many commentators in their columns but with the intention to connect the dots with Pompeo’s visits to other Asian countries, it is necessary to mention in brief what the BECA means in the regional context. One key issue that transpired the broad objective of Pompeo’s visit was to work out an approach/mechanism or even understanding that would enhance maritime security across the Indian Ocean region by coordinating security cooperation and building partner capacity with regional countries.

India-US 2+2 Dialogue

First, the brief note on the Indo-US 2+2 talks between the Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with the US counterparts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper is necessary to put the issue in perspective. This is a part of the larger military cooperation and is crucial for both the countries.

What is this 2+2 talks? It is a term adopted in foreign diplomacy that implies a dialogue between two countries’ defence and external affairs ministries. India holds such talks with Japan and Australia as well but at the foreign secretary and defence secretary level. It is only with the US that India holds ministerial-level talks. India and the US have met twice before – in September 2018 in New Delhi and in December in December 2019 in Washington D.C. and the one in New Delhi on 26-27 was the third such initiative. The past two talks resulted in agreements known as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). While LEMOA allows both countries to have access to each other’s designated military facilities for refuelling and replenishment, COMCASA – an Indian specific agreement – provides a legal framework for the transfer of communication security equipment with no disruption in supply from the US to India, besides providing access to real-time classified information from the American navy for the Indian Navy.2 The major highlight of the third meeting is the signing of the BECA, enabling India to use the American expertise on geospatial intelligence, besides helping India’s weapon and automate hardware systems. It thus transpires that enabling India access to extremely accurate geo-spatial data shall have several military applications.

BECA was thus the last of the basic agreements signed by the U.S. with close partners, enabling interoperability of forces and exchange of sensitive and classified information. BECA enables exchange between the two parties’ maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other unclassified imagery, geodetic, geophysical, geo-magnetic and gravity data.3

It may be mentioned that BECA had been under discussion for over a decade but had been blocked by the UPA government over concerns raised by security forces on protection of classified information and access to classified laboratories in India. Over time, that hesitation has been overcome as mutual trust grew between the two countries driven by common threat, enabling India finally to come on board.

How does the BECA help India? With this agreement, India will get access to military data thereby can enabling to work on target coordinates. For example, military grade coordinates could help direct missiles of air-launched bombs to a terror location in the neighbourhood with high accuracy. Captain Vikram Mahajan (retd), director, Aerospace and Defence at USISPF opines that “the data will be relevant on both the northern and western borders of India”.4 Coming days before the US Presidential elections, strategic experts have some concerns about the future of Indo-US relations if there is a change in the US Presidency. However, so long as the common threat remains, the relevance of the BECA shall not be diminished a bit.

Next in the list was Pompeo’s two-day visit to Sri Lanka on 27-28. It resulted in mixed outcome. Sri Lanka has seen its policies with India with critical eyes and does not endorse India’s growing closeness with the US. It retains the old perception, right or wrong, decades ago that India stood on its aspiration to become a member of the ASEAN grouping.5 While in Sri Lanka, Pompeo tried to sell his vision that Sri Lanka is “very different” from that of “predator” China and reaffirmed US’ commitment to the island nation’s sovereignty and security.6 Addressing a joint press conference with Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena after bilateral talks, Pompeo remarked that Sri Lanka as a positive partner “can be beacon for a free Indo-Pacific”.

The significance of Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka can be seen in the backdrop of China’s increasing forays in Sri Lanka and the visit is seen by analysts as part of the US effort to have Sri Lanka on its side vis-a-vis China. The Opposition led by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna accused the US of its alleged interference in Sri Lanka‘s internal affairs. It is interesting not to overlook that just a day before Pompeo hit the Sri Lanka soil, the Chinese Embassy accused the US of interfering in the relations between China and Sri Lanka. This was in the wake of a high-powered Chinese de legation led by ruling Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiecho that visited Colombo just two weeks before Pompeo landed in Colombo.

China is one of the biggest investors in various infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, which has attracted criticism locally and internationally amid growing concern that China has lured Sri Lanka into a debt trap. Yet, Sri Lanka is firm that no third party shall be allowed to dictate what policy choices it wants to pursue. Sri Lanka’s previous government of Maithripala Sirisena had entered into a 99-year lease with China in 2017 as a settlement of its debt by way of equity. Though India extended in July 2020 a $400 million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka to boost its draining foreign exchange reserves due to coronavirus pandemic and would be available till November 2022, Sri Lanka still looks to China as a benefactor.
While acknowledging China’s contribution to the island’s infrastructure development, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa rubbished the criticism that Sri Lanka is caught in a debt trap. He also stressed that Sri Lanka is non-aligned and will stay that way.

As it transpired, Pompeo achieved little success in swaying the Rajapaksa administration away from its pro-China bent. Much as the US might offer, China has scored over the US in providing liberal economic assistance and has emerged as Sri Lanka’s unfailing economic and diplomatic partner. China first provided a concessionary loan of $500 million for Covid-19 relief at the request of the Rajapaksa administration in March 2020. Then in May 2020, Sri Lanka decided to borrow $80 million from China to improve the island nation’s road infrastructure. China also pledged another $90 million grant to the island nation for medical care, education, and water supplies. Both sides are also currently negotiating terms for a $1.5 billion currency swap and a new $70 million loan, making Colombo’s fourth loan request to Beijing this year.7 China has also cemented its Sri Lanka foothold through health care donation diplomacy and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s strong hold on Sri Lanka is so strong that the U.S. finds it difficult to change the island nation’s priorities perceived on idealism and therefore unlikely to succeed its efforts to curb Chinese influence in Sri Lanka.

In comparison, the US provided a mere $5.8 million grant and 200 ventilators to Sri Lanka for Covid-19 relief. Compared with China, both India and the US lack the dollar-to-dollar competitive advantage and Pompeo’s attempt to play the democracy card had little impact on Sri Lanka’s consideration. Thus far, Beijing has succeeded in making the strategically located island nation as its tributary foreign policy target, thereby furthering its growing influence in South Asia. Unless the U.S. comes out with more tempting economic offer, Sri Lanka is unlikely to swap allegiance from China in favour of the U.S. Though China has often been attacked for using debt to entrap partner nations, the truism is that loan recipients are most often willing partners rather than passive victims.8

Pompeo’s next port of call was Maldives. Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean region is more important than even Sri Lanka and therefore, receives serious consideration in US strategic calculus to have it in its fold. Pompeo’s tour aimed at girding allies against China’s increasing political and military inroads in the region in recent years achieved mixed results. Like in Sri Lanka, China has also invested billions of dollars in projects in Maldives as part of its BRI of transport and energy links.9 Pompeo was heavily critical of China’s “lawless and threatening” behaviour in the region, reminding Maldives that Beijing was illegally occupying territory and damaging environment. Beijing reacted sharply by saying that “forcing small and medium sized countries to pick sides is a habitual behaviour of certain US politician”. Not deterred, the US announced that it would open an embassy in Male, demonstrating Washington’s determination to push for a free and open Indo-Pacific to curb China’s growing influence in the region.

It may be recalled that in September 2020, Maldives signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US to build American military bases there. In 2013, when the US made attempts to sign a SOFA with the Maldives, India was worried but when the US signed the SOFA in September 2020, India was happy, demonstrating thereby the changing strategic equation in such a short a time.

Like in Sri Lanka and partly in Maldives, Pompeo could have been disappointed as well from the response he received from Indonesia. Eyeing Indonesia’s disputes with China in the South China Sea, Pompeo must have thought he could convince the de facto leader of the ASEAN to join US efforts to contain China. Indonesia’s perception on China has changed over the years and is no longer concerned with fear that China would be trying to spread its communist ideology as probably before years ago but shows little enthusiasm for the US zeal to proselytise its version of democratic capitalism.

Pompeo wrapped up his five-nation Asia visit in Vietnam with recurring anti-China rhetoric. Surprisingly, however, unlike his comments at the various spots, Pompeo did not lash out at China, instead urging Vietnam to play a greater role in the region. During his talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Public Security Minister To Lam, Pompeo repeated the theme that the US is against China’s encroachment on sovereign nations of Southeast Asia, Asia and the Indo-Pacific regions. As Hanoi celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations with the US, Pompeo underscored US “support for the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations, international law, and a free and open Indo-Pacific.”10 While speaking to reporters, neither Phuc nor Pompeo mentioned China by name, but Pompeo’s use of the word “sovereignty” became code for referring to opposition to Chinese encroachment, particularly in Asia.

In conclusion it can be said that Pompeo’s five-nation Asian visit had mixed results. One thing however, seems clear: U.S. policy towards the Indo-Pacific region is likely to remain unchanged irrespective of the outcome in the US Presidential elections. That China is a country that needs to be kept under watch seems to be universally accepted, minor differences on policy interpretations notwithstanding. The new role assumed by the Quad as a net security provider11 and the on-going Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region need to be understood in the context of keeping China in check. There can be never a zero-sum-game in this complex setting where nations jostle to further their individual interests keeping the larger regional issues in mind. Pompeo’s Asian sojourn needs to be understood from this perspective.

Endnotes
  1. Mark J. Valencia, “Why Pompeo failed to turn Asia against China”, 4 November 2020, https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3108112/pompeos-failure-turn-asia-against-china-should-be-wake-call-us?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enlz-OpinionD

  2. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/what-are-the-2-2-talks-and-what-do-they-mean-for-us-and-india/story-JJBMLcMkoVQ7NYKUl17WdP.html
  3. “Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation” https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/basic-exchange-and-cooperation-agreement-for-geo-spatial-cooperation/printarticle/78820683.cms
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka”, Sri Lanka Guardian, editorial, 22 October 2020, http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2020/10/pompeos-visit-to-sri-lanka.html
  6. “US vision of Lanka very different from ‘predator’ China: Pompeo”, 28 October 2020, https://www.rediff.com/news/report/our-vision-of-lanka-different-from-predator-china-us/20201028.htm
  7. Patrick Mendis and Dominique Reichenbach, “Can Pompeo’s Visit to Sri Lanka Offset China’s Influence”, 31 October 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/can-pompeos-visit-to-sri-lanka-offset-chinas-influence/
  8. Anthony Rowley, “”China’s belt and road: ‘sour grapes’ claims of debt-trap diplomacy are not supported by evidence”, 2 November 2020, https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3107835/chinas-belt-and-road-sour-grapes-claims-debt-trap-diplomacy-are-not?utm_medium=email&utm_source=mailchimp&utm_campaign=enl
  9. “US: China has brought lawlessness to SL, Maldives”, Times of India, 29 October 2020.
  10. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/pompeo-wraps-5-nation-asia-visit-vietnam-recurring-anti-china-theme
  11. See, Rajaram Panda, “Rethinking the “Quad” Security Concept in the Face of a Rising China, China Brief, vol.20, issue 19, 30 October 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/rethinking-the-quad-security-concept-in-the-face-of-a-rising-china/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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