U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia under President Donald Trump is typically framed as a counter to Chinese dominance in the region. While the issue of Beijing's influence will likely come up during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tour of the area this week, it certainly won't dominate his talks with policymakers.
Days after announcing a $113 million infrastructure fund for Asia-Pacific economies as part of the White House's Indo-Pacific blueprint, Pompeo is expected to flesh out details of that policy during a five-day visit of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia that began Wednesday.
The trip comes at a time of deep skepticism in Southeast Asia about Washington's policies.
Washington's pressure on other governments to reduce trade deficits is a major focus for many countries — the U.S. Trade Representative in April warned about Jakarta's trade barriers — as is Trump's willingness to reduce his country's military footprint overseas. At the conclusion of the U.S.-North Korea summit in June, the American president said he would suspend annual military exercises with South Korea in a surprise concession that unleashed widespread security unease.
Pompeo's trip "is crucial to advancing American interests in a region where showing up is half the battle," said Michael Mazza, visiting fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The U.S. concept of a "free and open" Indo-Pacific has also rung alarm bells in Southeast Asia.
"Several have worried that the Trump administration could force countries in the region to choose openly between Washington and Beijing, a move that they say would backfire," Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a note.