America's top diplomat Mike Pompeo on Friday implored Southeast Asian nations to trust in US values, delivering a withering takedown of Chinese-style development, comments Beijing later swatted away as “meaningless”.
The secretary of state said decades of US alliances and investment had helped Asia walk from poverty to prosperity, as he aired the Trump administration's “Indo-Pacific” strategy in Bangkok.
From supporting state-led enterprises to disputes over contested territories, Pompeo took aim at China's actions and motivations in Southeast Asia, rowing back on comments on Thursday in which he told regional diplomats they were not expected to “choose” sides between the superpowers.
“Our investments don't serve a government.... (they) don't serve a political party,” he said of the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing considers Southeast Asia as its “neighborhood” where its economic, political and military might has given it primacy, with massive infrastructure and investment schemes striating the region.
But smaller powers also accuse China of loading on debt as well as aggression in the disputed South China Sea where a military build-up threatens the claims of several nations to strategically crucial waters.
The US wants the South China Sea, one of the world's most important shipping lanes, to remain open.
Serving up a sharp rebuke on China's drive into Southeast Asia, Pompeo said, “We're not building roads to pave over your national sovereignty... We don't fund bridges to close gaps of loyalty.”
His speech came hours after President Donald Trump promised to slap 10 percent tariffs on a further $300 billion of Chinese goods in a sharp escalation of the trade war between the two superpowers.
“China has taken advantage of trade... It's time for that to stop,” Pompeo said during a panel afterwards, accusing Beijing of proetctionism and “predatory tactics.”
Pompeo is in Bangkok to attend the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers' meeting.
Earlier in the week China's top diplomat, who is also in Bangkok, warned the US against trying to “sow distrust” between the regional superpower and Southeast Asian nations.
Replying to Pompeo's comments in Beijing foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said “positive momentum” had in fact been made in relations between China and its neighbors in Bangkok.
That included on a long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea, she said.
But Hua added that “high-ranking officials in the United States attempt to provoke discord”.
“It's really meaningless to play such games every year,” Hua said, calling on the US to come up with a “responsible attitude as the world's top power.”