- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2020

HANOI — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the “tide is turning” against China amid a growing recognition of the threat Beijing’s policies pose to the U.S. and countries across Asia.

Mr. Pompeo held talks this week with leaders of five southern Asian states and said in an interview that he found growing support for U.S.-led efforts to oppose Chinese efforts at financial and military dominance.

“Across a broad spectrum in the region, I think there’s a shared understanding that partnerships with democracies lead to better outcomes for them,” Mr. Pompeo told The Washington Times.

Based on his talks with regional leaders, Mr. Pompeo said “a deep recognition” exists that China has been ignoring international laws and norms of behavior for too long.

“There are just a thousand small ways that the tide is turning,” he said.

“There’s a little bit of push and a little bit of pull, and a lot of simple common understandings that have emerged over the last 2½ to three years where these countries have all said they welcome the United States’ more vigorous, more transparent, more responsive relationship with them, and they want to build friendships with fellow democracies to make life better for their own people,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo wrapped up the five-nation, around-the-world tour with a surprise visit to Vietnam days before the U.S. presidential election. The secretary of state said he hopes to continue leading foreign policy during a second Trump administration but noted that President Trump ultimately will decide on appointing any new Cabinet secretaries.

Win or lose on Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo said, he plans to use the remaining 100 days of the presidential term to seize diplomatic opportunities around the world. He touched on a number of priorities during the interview.

On arms control with Russia, Mr. Pompeo expressed doubts about extending the 2010 New START accord past its expiration in February in its current form.

“You know we’ve made some progress but, unfortunately, we’ve not been able to get the deal closed out,” he said. “But I haven’t given up.”

Mr. Pompeo noted the concept of a one-year freeze on U.S. and Russian warheads, proposed this month by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but said Washington had to be certain that the Kremlin was living up to its pledges.

“What we want to do is make sure there is a verification regime in place that is adequate for both sides to be confident that each side has lived up to that commitment,” he said.

Arms negotiators continue working on the warhead freeze.

“I think that would be a good arrangement. It’s interim. There’s a lot more work to do. It doesn’t cover all the things that need to be covered in an arms control agreement,” he said.

Still, U.S. officials continue to argue that a major shortcoming of the warhead freeze under New START will mean that China is not part of the accord.

“In the end, it’s no longer adequate to have a bilateral strategic dialogue on these nastiest of weapons systems,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The Chinese now have a missile capability [and] a nuclear capability that require them, if they want to be a true global power and reduce risk in the world, they need to join that conversation.”

So far, there has been little progress in persuading Beijing to join the talks, he said.

Visiting Vietnam

Mr. Pompeo arrived in Hanoi on Thursday night and is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and Public Security Minister To Lam.

Vietnam was added to the trip at the last minute after stops in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia.

In each capital, Mr. Pompeo said, regional governments are pushing back against what he described as a Chinese communist regime that has failed to live up to its international commitments and promises of a “peaceful rise.”

The increased cooperation against Beijing is evident in more multinational military exercises in the region, as well as stepped-up freedom of navigation operations on disputed waterways and airways. China has claimed some 90% of the South China Sea as its waters despite an international court ruling that rejected China’s claim.

Countries in Asia and other parts of the world also are following the U.S. lead in resisting Chinese efforts to control telecommunications infrastructure, Mr. Pompeo said.

Mr. Pompeo held defense and security talks in India on Monday with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and their Indian counterparts, resulting in new intelligence-sharing agreements.

After the New Delhi visit, Mr. Pompeo met with leaders of Sri Lanka and Maldives, two small South Asian island states that have increasingly come under Beijing’s financial sway.

In Indonesia on Thursday, the secretary of state bolstered relations with Asia’s largest Muslim majority state before stopping in Hanoi.

Asked about reports that the government in Jakarta balked at a proposal to service and refuel U.S. maritime patrol aircraft, Mr. Pompeo said: “Every country will make its own set of choices about precisely how our relationship develops and how we’ll work on things together. But I actually saw a real appetite for increased engagement from the United States.

“Indonesia has no illusions about the threat posed by China,” Mr. Pompeo said.

“Indonesia has taken a very resolute view to protect their own sovereignty when they were under a threat from China,” he said, a marked shift from policies of just three years ago.

But in remarks Thursday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi made no mention of China, although she did echo Mr. Pompeo’s call for promoting cooperation “that is open, inclusive, transparent and rules-based.”

The COVID-19 challenge

Dealing with the pandemic was a central issue in all the talks. Those traveling with Mr. Pompeo were subjected to COVID-19 testing in several countries.

“Everybody, including Sri Lanka, had COVID on their minds,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It’s impacting these countries dramatically and, importantly, not only from a health perspective but from an economic perspective.”

The United States offered aid and other steps to help the countries recover from the pandemic, he said, and again drew a contrast with China.

Regional states “can see the difference there,” Mr. Pompeo said. “One of these countries [China] has a totalitarian, authoritarian model that led to a virus being foisted upon the world and not disclosed. And the other country [the United States] just put its head down and got to work, to Operation Warp Speed, all the things that we’ve done. I think they can begin to see that this is a choice between the United States and China. Even the smaller countries can see that. China threatens them.”

In some cases, China has threatened regional states by asserting that unless they follow Beijing’s dictates, costs will be imposed, he said.

“I think the fact that an American secretary of state traveled to see them at a time when it’s a little bit hard to move around the world, I think it was reassuring for them, and I think it will give them the opportunity to choose freedom for their own people,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo said the Vietnam portion of the trip fell into place through behind-the-scenes diplomatic work at a time when Hanoi is seeking closer U.S. economic ties.

“They, too, are looking at enormous economic opportunities as businesses look at the political risks of operating inside of China,” he said.

“Vietnam is a likely destination. So is a place like Indonesia. I reminded them that the opportunity is enormous if they can get the red tape removed,” he said.

Indonesia recently enacted a labor law that will enhance freedom of movement for workers. The measure is expected to boost American businesses that are seeking to invest in Indonesia, and Mr. Pompeo thinks Vietnam could benefit from a similar approach.

“I want to go [to Hanoi] and share with them some of the things I think we can do on the economic front to give them more capacity, more capability, and to remind them, too, that the United States is prepared. When the Chinese next move against their energy issues in their own exclusive economic zone, they should know that the support they got from us before will still be there,” he added.

Policy shift

Mr. Pompeo has been the architect of a major shift in U.S. policy toward China, a shift set into motion by Mr. Trump’s understanding of the challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

The first years of the administration were difficult, he said.

“To the get the machine rolling takes a little bit of time, but you can now see it’s in full stride,” he said, noting efforts at the Commerce Department, the Pentagon and the State Department to confront Beijing.

“Our work diplomatically around the world [worked] to build out what ought to be automatic but wasn’t for 40 years,” he said. “For 40 years, the world appeased China, stared at it, bent a knee when challenged and allowed China to gain an enormous set of advantages in an unfair way.”

The secretary of state emphasized that the policy is not against the Chinese people but the ruling Communist Party. Relations must be “reciprocal, fair and balanced,” he said.

“We’ve now managed to build out a strategy around that,” he said. “We’ve just said, ‘Enough.’ If the rules are reciprocal and if the rules don’t treat the United States’ people right, then we’re going to make sure we do our level best to impose a cost on the Chinese Communist Party to change the rules and balance and level the playing field.”

More work is needed as China continues to pose challenges through “predatory activity” in Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, he said, “but we’ve really seen a change.”

“So we’ve laid out a strategy, we’re building on it. It’s a work in progress, for sure. I hope that we get four more years to continue to drive this, But I’d say this: The world has come to see this, and the world will carry this forward.”

Taiwan saber-rattling

Mr. Pompeo said the United States is closely following stepped-up Beijing saber-rattling against Taiwan.

“The primary concern stems from the fact [that China] has demonstrated its incapacity to live up to its own commitments,” he said.

“If you ask me, the primary concern — whether that was in Hong Kong or the promise they made to President Obama in 2015 not to build up weapons systems in the South China Sea — we’ve seen the Chinese not live up their word.”

China has a set of commitments that have been made to the United States regarding Taiwan and the rest of the world.

“We are counting on them to live up to those. But you can see the United States lived up to its commitments, both its commitments under the one-China policy and the communiques. But also the commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to continue to provide weapons systems so that the people of Taiwan can take care of themselves as well.”

After Chinese sanctions on U.S. defense contractors over earlier arms sales this week, the Trump administration announced additional weapons sales worth $2.37 billion in Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Asked whether the latest Taiwan missile sale was meant to signal Beijing, Mr. Pompeo dismissed the idea. “Those sales have been in the works for some time,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo praised Indonesia in a speech for respecting religious freedom — a major emphasis of his tenure at the State Department.

“Our respect for our God-given rights is the defining feature of America’s national spirit,” he said. “It’s why America stood tallest among Western democracies in supporting your independence from colonial rule and has been a stalwart supporter of Indonesia’s transition to democracy over the past two decades.”

“The fact that our people embrace freedom and uphold a tradition of tolerance is very special. We should never lose it,” he said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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