Scholars at the East-West Center, Hawaii, interacting with South Asian journalists. | Photo Courtesy: Sarah Katz
WASHINGTON DC/HONOLULU, Nov 13: United States officials, including defense strategists and members of the intelligentsia, have called on South Asian nations to make the right choice while entering into infrastructure development cooperation with China. In recent interactions with South Asian journalists, they argued that Indo-Pacific Strategy provides the right framework for South Asian countries to work together with the US on security, infrastructure, connectivity, development cooperation, and others.
Indo-Pacific Strategy is the concept reemphasized in 2017 by President Donald Trump and it calls for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” where nations “thrive in freedom and peace” and all states “play by the rules.”
But since its conspicuous name change from his predecessor Barack Obama's “Asia-Pacific” strategy and “Pivot to Asia” it has been interpreted in various places as a US strategy to check the rising influence of China in Asia by taking India on board.
US officials are particularly concerned about what they refer to as China's debt entrapment and undermining of sovereignty. “The US is concerned by certain investments and activities in the region that we see undermining sovereignty and economic stability and that are counter to our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Principal Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Alice G Wells.
She pointed out that Chinese investment in many cases has “harmed rather than helped economic well-being of communities in the region by burdening the governments with unsustainable debt and by funding projects that have no commercial and job creation values.”
Presenting the case of Sri Lanka's Hambantota port and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad's indication of pulling out of financially nonviable Chinese projects, Wells said: “We believe transparent and open competition is the surest environment in which to generate the kind of investment the region needs.” This is the investment, she argued, “that promotes economic growth” and that will be “free of coercion and destabilizing obligations.”
Echoing Wells, Atman Trivedi, who served as the senior director for policy in the Global Markets Bureau of the US Department of Commerce, said Indo-Pacific framework is better one for South Asia "because, unlike China, the US focuses on private sector, rule of law and transparency” and “the US approach does not come with strings attached.” Countries in South Asia need to find out “whether the loans provided (by China) are in their interest or not,” he warned.
The State Department mandarins, however, also acknowledged the possibility of US-China cooperation. “We are not opposed to Chinese lending in the Indo-Pacific region. As long as Chinese loans meet international standards or are sustainable or not predatory or that they adhere to environmental and labor standards, we welcome Chinese contribution to the economic uplift of the region,” Wells said.
American officials also stressed that it's up to the countries themselves to decide what is best for them. “The intention of the US is not to make countries choose between China and America,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary to Asia of the US Department of Commerce, Diane Farrell.
At another interaction with South Asian journalists, Deputy Director for Operations at the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii Dagvin Anderson, who is a brigadier general, said the US is not against China per se. “We are not against the fact that China wants to have a global presence and wants to be involved globally, so long as they don't want to subvert or change a system that has been working very well for the last several decades,” he said.
Members of the intelligentsia expressed differing views on US-China relations. “China and United States at the moment are essentially competing for some degree of control over the same geographic space. So this is an irreconcilable situation at the moment,” said Dr Denny Roy, senior fellow and supervisor of the POSCO Fellowship Program at the East-West Center.
Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center Dr Christopher McNally does not see it that way. It might seem like we are entering a new cold war with China, he said, but “this is not going to be the case.” “There will be friction, there will be competition and the future may be chaotic… at some point it's going to be quite harmonious. At other points it's going to be laden with frictions.”
McNally spoke critically of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The name change is “extremely unfortunate”, he said, because it “excludes the major people in the middle: Asia.” He added, “And Nepal, as a landlocked country, is not figured prominently in the Indo-Pacific strategy.”
The US is increasing its engagements with South Asia at a time when China is also expanding its presence in the region. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, initially looked to as promising by Asian countries, have raised alarm after stories of debt traps started to surface.