It has become a familiar pattern for senior officials of the Trump administration to make key announcements before embarking on trips to the heart of Asia. In mid-year, as he travelled to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis stopped in Hawaii to rename the US Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command. Now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, shortly before leaving for Asean-related meetings in Singapore this week, has launched the Indo-Pacific Business Forum. He also announced US$113 million (S$154 million) in new US initiatives to support the digital economy, energy and infrastructure, calling it "just a down payment on a new era" in US economic commitment to the Indo-Pacific.
While he did not mention China by name, Washington is clearly signalling that Asian nations have an alternative to what some see as the mercantilist approach of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which has added to the debt piles of nations such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Mr Pompeo then went on to speak of a "truly whole-of-government mission" to engage the region. For all these reasons, if what was announced on Monday is the stirrings of the economic plank of the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept, it is a welcome development and a sign that Washington recognises that the deployment of military assets alone does not constitute enough of meaningful policy towards the region.