This week, during a trip to Southeast Asia to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a US$113 million budget for Indo-Pacific development.
The funds for a region which includes East, Southeast and South Asia, was so small that it is hardly deserved mention, let alone a high-profile announcement, according to some observers. The investment includes security assistance and comes days after the US Senate passed a defense spending bill worth more than US$700 billion.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement, which fits in perfectly with US President Donald Trump’s “America First” brand, opened another opportunity for China to criticize Washington.
“ASEAN members are not sure what the US Indo-Pacific strategy entails. The US announced only an investment of $113 million, which also includes India. The amount seems only sufficient to build an overpass perhaps in the center of Mumbai,” China’s state-run Global Times wrote on Friday.
“Washington is using a strategic gimmick. It is insincere about pushing forward economic prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. What it wants is something else,” the commentary continued.
ASEAN member countries, while welcoming US influence in the region as a counterbalance to China’s growing clout, have every reason to be skeptical of the Trump administration’s strategy, the article continued.
“What ASEAN saw was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the US had already agreed to, and the White House’s full-blown trade war. ASEAN members are worried about being caught in the crosshair or hit by Trump’s trade tariff ‘bullets.’ Both Singapore and Malaysia lowered their GDP growth expectations for 2019 amid the trade war. Indonesia is also worried as it too has a trade surplus with the US.”
While Pompeo denied that the funds pledged were seeking to rival Beijing’s investments, the contrast between China’s US$900 billion commitment to Asian countries cannot be ignored. Despite the ridicule in China’s state media, Beijing was quick to welcome the investment, expressing hope that the US, Japan and Australia would increase investment.