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Pompeo's Indo-Pacific strategy is just a start

By Alyssa Ayres

Editor's Note:Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World." The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) — In a speech before the US-India Business Council of the US Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific economic strategy, seen by many as the response to China's Belt and Road initiative.

Pompeo offered news about a new $113 million allocation to promote digital, energy, and infrastructure connectivity in the Indo-Pacific. And while he spoke about leveraging these initiatives with US allies and partners in the region, he said little about what Washington would pursue, with whom, and where. Pompeo needs to articulate a specific strategy for US economic statecraft because that will be as important as dollars in crafting a credible alternative to the Belt and Road.

Alyssa Ayres

The Indo-Pacific is a huge region, stretching from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India, as Pompeo put it. Within this expanse, China has been actively increasing its infrastructure loans to countries like Sri LankaPakistanBangladeshNepal, the Maldives. The scale of the Belt and Road Initiative -- trillions of dollars -- means that US assistance will not be able to match up. Pompeo acknowledged as much, emphasizing the crucial role that private investment has to play at a far greater level than government funding.

The $113 million in assistance will clearly not scratch the surface of the financing needs in the Indo-Pacific region. (The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor alone is a $62 billion investment pledged to date.) Pompeo referenced legislation on Capitol Hill, the BUILD Act, which would create a consolidated US agency for development finance through merging the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Development Credit Authority of USAID.

Should this pass, the United States would be better enabled to underwrite riskier private sector investments in developing countries -- something long overdue. But Pompeo did not offer any outline of specific diplomatic partnerships with like-minded countries or companies that would leverage US funding for bigger impact. It's here that a more fully-drawn-out diplomatic strategy should be developed.

Related Article: Pompeo announces new US investments in Indo-Pacific region

A diplomatic strategy needs specifics -- like partner governments and a scope of focus. Take, for instance, the partnership between Japan and India on connectivity from Africa to Asia, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiative. Research institutions from the two countries and ASEAN have partnered to create a "vision document" for a myriad of initiatives they could jointly undertake for countries spanning the east coast of Africa through to Oceania. Areas highlighted cover skills training, infrastructure, development, and people-to-people exchange, including tourism and education.

Or take the recent joint statement issued by Australia and the United States last week following the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations. The statement includes a commitment to partner on economic development in the Indo-Pacific, and goes more specific with a plan on infectious disease reduction and global health security across the Indo-Pacific.

These two examples suggest what Pompeo needs to do to refine the Indo-Pacific economic vision: Clarify how the United States will work with others to make a greater impact.

Will part of the $113 million funding catalyze matching commitments, for example, from private companies or other countries' development agencies? Will Washington help craft a package of shared investments by Japan, India, Australia, Singapore, and others to promote closer cooperation among like-minded countries throughout the region on any of the sectors Pompeo highlighted today such as digital, energy, or infrastructure?

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And what is Pompeo's plan to engage regional institutions such as the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), or the Indian Ocean Rim Association? Pompeo promised more on these later this week, but it would have been good to hear the hint of a plan for economic diplomacy with each on the new US vision for digital, energy, and infrastructure investment.

The US Department of State is skilled at executing this kind of diplomatic strategy: Convening across regions, persuading other countries of the validity of an approach, and developing partnerships across the public and private sectors. What we need now is for Pompeo to tell us his plan.


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