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In latest US move vs. China, Pompeo stirs up division in Southeast Asia

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his platform at the annual foreign ministers’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on September 10 to bash China and stir up trouble in a region 8,000 miles away from his office in Washington, D.C. Pompeo urged the members of ASEAN, a 10-nation regional cooperation bloc founded in 1967, to “Reconsider business dealing with the very state-owned companies that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea.”

By “bully[ing] ASEAN coastal states”, Pompeo was referring to competing territorial claims by China and its neighbors to the waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese government and publicly-owned Chinese companies have constructed facilities in these disputed areas in recent years, as have other countries involved in the disputes. 

This is not a new strategy for Washington — by inflaming this hot-button issue, the Secretary of State hopes to isolate China diplomatically and economically in order to preserve U.S. dominance in East Asia and beyond. Liberation News spoke with K.J. Noh, a peace activist and scholar on the geopolitics of Asia, about Pompeo’s actions at the summit and their significance. 

On the issue of construction in contested territory, Noh explained, “China is not unique regarding construction or claims in the South China Sea. Five out of six of the claimants to the South China Sea have built facilities on contested Islands, including airstrips and other military facilities. The contested claims to the South China Sea among the various nations themselves bisect, tri-sect, quadri-sect — they are simply not just about China.”

Hypocrisy of the empire

Pompeo offered his false friendship to the nations that compose ASEAN. “Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people. You should have confidence that America will be here in friendship to help you.” Pompeo told the bloc’s top diplomats. 

Noh pointed out the utter hypocrisy of these words: “[T]he US has not been a staunch ally. To the contrary, it has perpetrated or engineered five of the worst mass genocides in the 20th century in ASEAN countries: Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and supported war atrocities and politicide in four others: East Timor, Malaysia, Myanmar and Khmer Republic … I find it deeply ironic that the country that has perpetrated the majority of gut-churning war crimes and genocides on ASEAN countries should become so solicitous and concerned about the interests and well-being of these countries.”

Noh continued, “This is comparable to militia member Kyle Rittenhouse traveling far across state lines to “defend” another person’s store by parading and waving arms — it’s a misguided, belligerent act of interference and provocation that creates risks and harms for everyone, and heightens the risk of war.”

The danger of open war breaking out in the South China Sea is no exaggeration. The U.S. military constantly conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises where it sails its most advanced warships through disputed waters, carries out provocative air exercises and spy missions, and has since the early years of the Obama administration been dramatically expanding its military presence in the region under the “Pivot to Asia” doctrine. Such a conflict has the potential to devastate the entire world, and yet this is precisely the path the Pentagon and State Department are traveling down.

Despite its noble-sounding proclamations, the true goal of the U.S. government is to prevent a resolution to the disputes among neighbors in Southeast Asia. Noh highlighted the fact that, “China and all the other ASEAN nations were in the process of negotiating and resolving their disputes amicably, until the US, weaponizing lawfare, concocted with the Philippines in 2015 a fraudulent case about the South China Sea in a paid-for farce of a private tribunal that was later marketed as a UN ruling (it wasn’t).”      

Mike Pompeo’s speech to the ASEAN summit was a textbook example of the oldest imperialist trick in the book: divide and conquer. But the reality is clear — the U.S. government is a friend to no one other than Wall Street and the ultra-rich, and causes chaos wherever it intervenes.

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