NEW DELHI (Reuters) – US Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo is flying to India next week to strengthen strategic ties with a nation that is locked in a military standoff with China, in Washington’s latest effort to bolster allies against Beijing.
As part of an intensifying pushback against China’s economic and military power in the region, Pompeo will also travel to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, two key Indian Ocean countries that are struggling with a mountain of Chinese debt incurred to finance big infrastructure projects.
Pompeo will conclude his trip, which comes in the final week before the US presidential election, in Indonesia which is also locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.
“We’re looking forward to strengthening critical relationships with our friends and partners, emphasizing our deep commitment to the Indo-Pacific and advancing our vision for long-term partnership and prosperity in the region,” said Dean Thompson, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Washington has been ramping up diplomatic pressure on China, and President Donald Trump has made being tough on Beijing a key part of his campaign to secure a second term.
Pompeo led a meeting of foreign ministers from India, Japan and Australia earlier this month in Tokyo, a grouping that is seen as potentially a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
Next month, India will host Malabar, the biggest naval exercises in years, with the United States, Japan and Australia, which China has in the past opposed.
Beijing said this month that unprovoked US accusations against China showed a “Cold War mentality.”
During the trip, in which Pompeo will be accompanied by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, India is expected to sign a military agreement that will give it access to sensitive US satellite data to help improve targeting of missiles and drones, Indian officials said.
“There is great further potential in our defense cooperation,” an Indian official said.
In Sri Lanka, Pompeo will urge government leaders to scale back dependence on China, which has invested billions of dollars building ports and highways but which has left the island nation in debt, officials said.
‘DIFFICULT BUT NECESSARY DECISIONS’
Pompeo, making a first visit by a US Secretary of State in over a decade, will convey support for a “strong, independent and democratic Sri Lanka,” Thompson said.
“We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity,” he said.
The island is a key part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative but the government in recent years has sought to improve ties with India, United States and Japan.
Similar efforts are underway to push back against Chinese influence in the Maldives, another set of tropical islands that lie on key shipping lanes.
“Expected discussions of the visit include the global battle against the COVID-19 pandemic as well as ongoing and future collaboration,” the government in Male, the capital of the Maldives, said in a statement.
Pompeo’s visit to Indonesia comes amid an escalating US-China rivalry that is being vigorously contested in Southeast Asia, especially in the South China Sea, which China claims as almost entirely its own territory. The claim is opposed by many regional states, including Indonesia.
Earlier this week, the US State Department approved the potential sale of three weapons systems to Taiwan, including sensors, missiles and artillery that could have a total value of $1.8 billion.
Taiwan, which China says is a renegade province, also claims large parts of the South China Sea.
Washington made high-level approaches to Indonesia in late July and early August to grant landing and refuelling rights to its P-8 surveillance planes that monitor Chinese military activity in the resource-rich waterway.
The offer, first reported by Reuters, was rebuffed by Jokowi, according to four senior officials. Indonesia has long followed a neutral foreign policy and has never allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for foreign military operations.
“There are commercial issues, security issues, and diplomatic issues where the United States has already improved the relationship between the countries,” Pompeo said this week. “But there’s more that we can do.”
Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; additional reporting by Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo, Mohammed Junayd in Male; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan