The U.S. government’s interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific region is “rooted in the fact that the United States is an Indo-Pacific nation” and deeply invested in the broader region, says Alice G. Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.
In remarks given at the Foreign Press Center in Washington on Aug. 20, Wells previewed her trip to the Indian Ocean Conference and offered insight on the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
“The U.S. conducts about $1.4 trillion in two-way trade with the rest of Indo-Pacific, more than any other country in the world, and has provided a cumulative $805 billion in foreign direct investment,” Wells said.
“We naturally want to build our longstanding commitment to the region, and have taken some important steps recently to ensure the region’s future is free and open and operates on a rule-based system.”
Wells says the theme of the Indian Ocean Conference—building regional architectures—is timely.
“South Asia is the least economically connected region of the world in terms of intraregional trade, and building a stronger regional institutional architecture is one of my top priorities,” she said.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced at the Indo Business Forum last month that the United States is funding initiatives in digital economy, infrastructure, and energy with $113 million, including the United States’ first contribution to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
Pompeo said these funds represent a down payment on a new era and a U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.
Pompeo also announced on Aug. 4 that the United States will give nearly $300 million and additional security assistance for nations spanning the Indo-Pacific, to strengthen regional security cooperation.
At the Indian Ocean Conference on Aug. 27 and 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wells said she looks forward to highlighting major economic and security investments totaling over $410 million and how these contributions can support development for the region.
Wells said the Trump administration sees U.S. trade with India as a key strategic objective.
“Our bilateral trade is now about $126 billion, an increase of more than 10 billion from last year including critical purchases by Indian firms in the commercial aviation, energy and defense sectors,” she said.
Talking about China’s practices in the region, Wells said the U.S. government welcomes contributions by Beijing to regional development, as long as the Chinese government adheres to high standards, including transparency, rule of law, and sustainable financing.
“We’ve expressed concerns over projects in countries, where the countries and governments involved have not been able to sustain the repayment schedules that has resulted in effectively a loss of sovereignty over key infrastructure that they’ve had to turn over to their lenders, in this instance, China,” Wells said.
“And so as long as China is prepared to support the integration of the region in ways that are sustainable and don’t mortgage these individual countries’ futures to unrealistic and unsustainable loan terms, then I think there’s very much a way that we can work together.”
Wells said that she could see many areas in South Asia where the interests of the United States and China overlap, such as ending terrorism and obtaining peace and stability in Afghanistan. Such a basis of overlapping interests “gives us a good conversation to start from.”
In April, Alex N. Wong, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave an explanation of the United States’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy that, without mentioning China, pointed to Beijing’s recently aggressive role.
“Free” means nations in the region can be free from coercion and can pursue, in a sovereign manner, the paths they choose, while “open” implies open seas and open airways, because 50 percent of the world’s trade goes through the Indo-Pacific sea routes, particularly through the South China Sea, Wong said.
“Open sea lanes and open airways in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly vital and important to the world,” he said.