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World

What Pompeo Wants In Southeast Asia Visit

NOEL KING, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a five-day tour of Southeast Asia today. He'll be going to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in order to shore up support amid growing Chinese influence in the region. Satu Limaye is director of the East-West Center's Washington, D.C., office. He's with us in studio now. Good morning.

SATU LIMAYE: Good morning.

KING: So why is Secretary Pompeo going to Southeast Asia now?

LIMAYE: Well, of course, there's a major regional gathering of countries there, the ASEAN Regional Forum. And then, of course, he has his bilateral visit starting, as you said, in Malaysia and then with our close strategic partners Singapore and Indonesia. Malaysia has just had a major election with a change in government for the first time in decades. So it's an important time to take stock of the new government in Kuala Lumpur, see where it's going, how we can cooperate with Malaysia. And, of course, Indonesia is a large democracy, will have its elections next year, and so pursuing the strategic comprehensive partnership with Indonesia.

KING: I want to ask you a little bit about strategy because this is the part of the world where China has been spending a lot of money on infrastructure - right? - as part of these diplomatic efforts to expand its influence. Now, earlier this week, the U.S. announced that it was partnering with Japan and Australia and will spend more than $100 million on technology and infrastructure. Is the U.S. trying to counter what China is doing in the region?

LIMAYE: Well, there's no question there's a competitive element of U.S. engagement with the region. But I would simply say that it's about China and at China but not only about and at China. ASEAN is important on its own terms.

KING: Tell us what ASEAN is.

LIMAYE: ASEAN is the grouping that stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which comprises 10 Southeast Asian countries. And China has had a big role. It's - even more than infrastructure, China's economic growth has given markets and economic commercial relations with regional countries. So it's a great thing that the U.S. is offering infrastructure and assistance.

But at the end of the day, Southeast Asia has to be attractive on a competitive basis for private sector capital to improve its almost $2 trillion worth of needs of infrastructure. And so we have to see this more than just tit for tat with China but rather a larger long-term effort to improve commercial and trade and investment relations with the region.

KING: So it's not just a tug of war between the United States and China. So let me ask you then, what does this group of nations - what is their attitude toward the Trump administration, an administration that has been very sort of, you know, back and forth on its foreign policy, made some new friends, made some potentially new enemies?

LIMAYE: Well, the first thing I'd say is the Trump administration has more continuity than discontinuity in its relations with Southeast Asian countries. The Trump administration - the president met with four Southeast Asian leaders within the first few months of taking office. He visited - made the longest trip in a generation of an American president to the region to attend the regional summits last November. More than likely, he'll go this November. He's had lots of bilateral meetings on the sidelines with regional leaders. We have two treaty allies in the region. It's the largest destination for U.S. foreign investment in all of Asia, that region.

KING: Wow.

LIMAYE: That region it's the sixth-largest market for agriculture. So in a number of ways, the U.S.-Southeast Asia relationship has legs regardless of the administration and regardless of just the China factor. We have ongoing investment trade. Almost 40 percent of Americans - Asian-Americans trace their ancestry to Southeast Asia, for example.

KING: Just a very important region in the world. Satu Limaye is director of the East-West Center here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for coming in.

LIMAYE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.