BANGKOK • Putting China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) squarely in his sights, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday called on regional countries to weigh their development options carefully as he made a pitch for US-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 met 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 economies through a network of infrastructure projects.
Mr Pompeo made the comments as the latest round of US-China trade talks failed to ease their trade war, prompting US President Donald Trump to impose fresh 10 per cent tariffs on another US$300 billion ($413 billion) in Chinese goods.
"I think (Chinese President Xi Jinping)… wants to make a deal, but frankly, he is not going fast enough," said Mr Trump.
In Bangkok, on the sidelines of the Asean foreign ministers' meetings with counterparts from countries such as Australia, India, Japan, China and the United States, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the new tariffs as unconstructive in forging a resolution.
Meanwhile, the US has expressed concern over the likelihood that Phnom Penh has struck a deal with Beijing to allow the Chinese military to use Cambodia as a staging post - something that would widen its strategic reach beyond installations in disputed South China Sea islands.
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... 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." The US, he said, wants "true partnerships" in the region.
Putting another wedge in US-China ties are the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which Beijing has alleged are instigated by the US. Mr Pompeo said: "The current unrest in Hong Kong clearly shows the will and the voice of the governed will always be heard."
Tan Hui Yee