In a speech titled “America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” before the US-India Business Council on Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a US$113 million fund to support digital, energy, and infrastructure connectivity in Asia.

Some quickly touted it as a response by the US to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But the United States’ Indo-Pacific economic strategy is, in both scale and scope, almost non-existent compared with China’s trillion-dollar BRI. For instance, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key part of Beijing’s astronomical plan, is already worth $62 billion on its own.

What’s more, in the long-awaited address, the United States’ top diplomat didn’t mention China by name. A day before his speech, Pompeo’s senior policy adviser, Brian Hook, also stated that he wouldn’t think America’s new program “is a strategy to counter” China’s BRI, which he branded as “a made-in-China, made-for-China” initiative.

Yet China was clearly the elephant in the room, because it was omnipresent, albeit implicitly, in Pompeo’s remarks.

Defining terms

Almost right at the beginning of his remarks, the former Central Intelligence Agency director defined two key terminologies – namely “free” and “open” – in the White House’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.”

From the US perspective, a “free” Indo-Pacific means “all nations, every nation, [are] able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries.” At the national level, Pompeo explained, “free” means “good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties.”

In advancing an “open” Indo-Pacific, the US wants “all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways” as well as “the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes.” Economically, it supports “fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations.”

As noted by Pompeo, in his remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam last November, President Donald Trump “first outlined his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” and his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) “also detailed that vision.”

However, apparently this is the first time a top Trump administration official has clearly defined “what it is this administration means when it uses that language,” namely “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

With such a distinct clarification, it is unmistakable that America’s top diplomat wanted to stress that his country’s “vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” is completely different from – if not antithetical to – what the China is doing, both nationally and internationally.

For instance, the argument that all nations are “able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries” and “enjoy open access to seas and airways” is clearly aimed at Beijing’s regional behavior, especially in the South China Sea.

China’s expansionism

The Asian behemoth’s massive expansion, militarization in – and, consequently, its ambition to dominate – the resources-rich, strategically vital and hotly disputed waters have alarmed not only claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines, but also many other countries in and outside the region, including the US.

The Trump administration’s NSS cautioned that China’s “efforts to build and militarize outposts in the [area] endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability,” warning its “dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.”

That’s why in his remarks, Pompeo strongly stressed that the US had “never and will never seek domination in the Indo-Pacific, and [it] will oppose any country that does.”

In his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, US Defense Secretary James Mattis also plainly made such a distinction, stating: “China’s policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness of our strategy.”

By championing a free Indo-Pacific, where “citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties,” Pompeo also takes a swipe at China’s authoritarianism, especially under the rule of Xi Jinping, its current powerful and autocratic leader.

Indeed, though it has achieved great economic successes, the communist-ruled giant remains one of the world’s least free countries.

American values

Besides stressing that the US champions “fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations,” Pompeo also singled out other American values, such as anti-corruption, the rule of law and responsible financing, and encouraged Indo-Pacific leaders to adhere to them.

“With American companies, citizens around the world know that what you see is what you get: honest contracts, honest terms, and no need for off-the-books mischief,” he said. “Integrity in business practices is an essential pillar of our Indo-Pacific economic vision, and it is what each country in the region needs.”

Again, by all of this, he implicitly drew a stark contrast to China’s actions and policies, notably its BRI.

In his comments, Brian Hook said the US encouraged China “to promote and uphold internationally accepted best practices and infrastructure development and financing and to adopt an open and inclusive approach to its [BRI], especially these overseas infrastructure projects.”

Admittedly, while it significantly contributes – or more precisely, could potentially hugely contribute – to regional development, the BRI, billed as “the project of the century” by Xi Jinping, its architect, has generated widespread apprehension over its general opacity, financial viability, economic profitability and debt sustainability. Some regard it as a strategic and self-interested tool for Beijing to extend its sphere of influence while for others, instead of empowering participating countries, the scheme puts some of them under a huge debt.

In an editorial on Monday, the Financial Times said, “there is growing evidence that the [BRI’s] infrastructure projects are falling short of Beijing’s ideals and stirring controversy in the countries they were intended to assist.”

Other top officials and political leaders, such as Mattis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have explicitly warned about or implicitly raised these problems.

Reasserting US role in Indo-Pacific

Overall, by emphasizing the United States’ commitment to the principles of freedom and openness in its Indo-Pacific strategy, Pompeo implicitly – but strongly – differentiated Washington’s foreign policies from Beijing’s – notably the latter’s South China Sea posture and its BRI.

The timing of his comments – at a time when the Trump administration is engaging in and could potentially escalate a trade war with Beijing – also strengthens the view that Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy is largely aimed at China.

In his speech, he made clear that the funds unveiled “represent just a down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region” and announced that later this week, when he travels to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, he “will make further announcements on security assistance.”

At a time when many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, notably America’s key regional partners and allies, doubt the Trump administration’s commitment to the region, Pompeo’s speech is a welcome move.

That said, to show that it “is deeply engaged in the region’s economic, political, cultural, and security affairs” and, especially, that it is seeking a bigger, broader, bolder, better and more beneficial engagement with the regional nations than Beijing, Washington must do more. As Pompeo rightly acknowledged, some are still “wondering about America’s role in the region in light of President Trump’s decision to pull out” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the huge US-led Pacific Rim trade deal.