The United States yesterday pledged US$113 million (S$154 million) to support initiatives in the digital economy, energy and infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region, describing these as "foundational areas of the future".
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement in a keynote address at the US Chamber of Commerce's Indo-Pacific Business Forum, days before he leaves for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
"These funds represent just a downpayment on a new era in US commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region," he said.
The measures include a US$25 million initial investment to improve digital connectivity in partner countries and to expand opportunities for US technology exports.
The US will invest nearly US$50 million this year alone to "help Indo-Pacific partners import, produce, move, store and deploy their energy resources", Mr Pompeo said.
It will also launch a network to develop infrastructure.
A new initiative with a seeding of US$30 million is being kick-started to offer partners technical assistance as well as access to private legal and financial advisory services.
"Later this week, I will make further announcements on security assistance," Mr Pompeo said. The US Secretary of State is leaving tomorrow for the trip to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
On Saturday in Singapore, he will meet foreign ministers of East Asia Summit member states - Asean plus Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Korea and Russia.
Initiatives under US economic strategy for Indo-Pacific
Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership: To support digital infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific
Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network: To form inter-agency body to coordinate efforts to assess projects, direct development finance, and give technical assistance
Asia EDGE (Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy): To promote energy security and access by boosting US eports and encouraging market-based policies
Access Asia programme: To connect American firms with Indo-Pacific markets
Source: White House
Analysts see the initiatives as the beginning of an American response to China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
When asked about this in a teleconference briefing the previous night, Mr Brian Hook, senior policy adviser to Mr Pompeo, downplayed that aspect.
"Our core message… is that a free and open Indo-Pacific is good for the region, it is good for America and it is good for business," he told journalists.
"The Belt and Road is, for the moment, China's way of doing things. It is a made in China, made for China initiative."
He added: "Our way of doing things is to keep government's role very modest, and it is focused on helping businesses to do what they do best. And that is what will advance American commercial interests and meet the needs of our partners in the Indo-Pacific."
At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, Mr Pompeo defined the Indo-Pacific as stretching from America's west coast to the west coast of India.
"The American people and the whole world have a stake in the Indo-Pacific's peace and prosperity, it is why the Indo-Pacific must be free and open," he stressed.
"Free… means we want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries," Mr Pompeo added. "At the national level, free means good governance with the assurance citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties."
By "open", the US means all nations must enjoy "open access to sea and air ways", he said.
"We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. This is key to international peace," Mr Pompeo said.
"It is clearly in America's strategic interest to deepen engagement in the region," the Secretary of State said. But the US wants partnerships, not domination, he added.
"We believe in strategic partnerships, not strategic dependency," he said. "Our Indo-Pacific vision excludes no nation."