BANGKOK - Putting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) squarely in his sights, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday (Aug 2) called on regional countries to weigh their development options carefully as he made a pitch for American supported, private-led growth.
“Ask yourself, who really puts your interests first? A trading power that respects your sovereignty, or one that scoffs at it?” he said at the Siam Society in Bangkok, where he was meeting Asean foreign ministers and other regional counterparts in an annual set of meetings. “Ask yourself this: Who really encourages self-sufficiency and not dependence - investors who are working to meet your consumers’ needs, or those who entrap you in debt?”
His remarks hit at the core of fears around Beijing’s grand plan of linking up regional economies through a network of infrastructure projects. Often funded by loans from China, the state-driven scheme has been criticised for loading host countries with debt that makes them beholden to Beijing’s political demands – something it strongly denies.
Mr Pompeo made these comments as the latest round of US-China trade talks failed to ease their trade war, prompting US president Donald Trump to slap a fresh 10 per cent tariffs on another US$300 billion (S$413 billion) of Chinese goods.
“I think (Chinese president Xi Jinping)… wants to make a deal, but frankly, he’s not going fast enough,” said Mr Trump.
In Bangkok on Friday, on the sidelines of the Asean foreign ministers’ meetings with regional counterparts like Australia, India, Japan, China and the US, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the new tariff as unconstructive to forging a resolution.
Tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by the two largest economies of the world have depressed China’s and the region’s growth. Beijing accuses Washington of bullying behaviour and says the US is trying to suppress China’s rise as a power. Washington alleges that Beijing conducts industrial espionage and complains that it uses foreign investment restrictions to pressure American companies to transfer technology to Chinese companies.
Meanwhile, the US has expressed concern over the likelihood that Phnom Penh has struck a deal with Beijing to allow Chinese military to use Cambodia as a staging post – something that would widen its strategic reach beyond the military installations it has erected on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Putting another wedge in US-China ties are the recent anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which Beijing has alleged are instigated by the US.
In Bangkok, Mr Pompeo made a thinly-veiled reference to the estimated trillion-dollar worth of China-led investments under the BRI by suggesting that the private sector can better state-led growth.
“We want the trillions of dollars of uninvested private capital all around the world to be put to work in this region. We have seen this - private investors have exponentially more money than any one government could ever bestow on any other country to build bridges, ports or electricity grids,” he said.
“Our investments don’t serve a government, and our investments here don’t serve a political party,” he said, conjuring comparisons to the Communist Party of China. “We don’t fund bridges to close gaps of loyalty. Our companies are incentivised to do high quality work that benefits consumers and citizens.”
The US, he said, wants “true partnerships” in the region.
On the Hong Kong protests, he said: “The current unrest in Hong Kong clearly shows the will and the voice of the governed will always be heard.”