WASHINGTON: There is a developmental model - and money - beyond the example of China and its financing for Asian countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and perhaps beyond that in Africa. The United States, Japan, India and Australia could provide the alternative option.
In the first articulation of its strategy to counter China's growing influence in the region and across the world, a senior Trump administration official on Friday provided a broad framework of Washington working with Tokyo, New Delhi, and Canberra to arrive at what could in the near-term be a quadrilateral architecture that could later grow beyond that.
"Countries that share values have an opportunity to provide alternatives to countries in the region who are seeking needed investment in their infrastructure and in their economic development, and so making sure that we coordinate our initiatives and provide these countries with alternatives that don't include predatory financing or unsustainable debt, that would certainly be on the agenda," Acting US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells told journalists in a review of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to the region.
The emerging US strategy also comes ahead of President Trump's visit to the region, including to Beijing and Tokyo, next month.
Wells' reference to "predatory financing or unsustainable debt" clearly alluded to China although she did not name the country. Beijing has been accused of exploiting countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka with grandiose plans that even sections of intelligentsia in those countries deem to be exploitative in sharp contrast to India's work in Afghanistan that has won universal acclaim.
Citing the example of the Millennium Challenge Corporation's $680 million project in Nepal, $ 130 million of which is funded by the Government of Nepal, the rest by MCC, Wells said the project, which is building energy transmission lines to India along with roads, would allow Nepal, over the course of the next seven years to be an energy exporter, and "build connectivity between India and Nepal in a very responsible fashion."
Highlighting an already productive tri-lateral partnership between U.S., India, and Japan, Wells said Australia would be a natural partner in that effort as well, and Washington is looking at a working-level quadrilateral meeting in the near term. "The idea is how do we bring together countries that share these same values and to reinforce these values in the global architecture," she added.
Asked how the US would react to China seeing this negatively and as part of a plan to sort of surround it, Wells said "it's hard to see a meeting of diplomats from four countries as a plan to contain China."
"I think it's a natural expression and convergence of interests between democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region and it's a natural stepping stone from the very productive trilateral conversations, exercises, and cooperation that we've seen between India, Japan, and the United States," she added.
The US - going back to the Obama administration - has long tried to talk India into a stronger and longer "look east" posture to counter China's growing assertiveness, but New Delhi has been leery - and with countries such as Australia, distrustful. The Trump administration had pushed the envelope much further with a clear-eyed strategy aimed at countering China.
In the bluntest challenge to China's growing footprint through its One-Belt, One -Road strategy, US Secretary of State James Mattis specifically said "there are many belts and many roads" while backing New Delhi's objection to Chinese project in the disputed areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Since then, there has been a growing debate in the Pakistani media about the viability of Chinese investment in Pakistan and its exploitative nature.