WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday the U.S. is committed to expanding trade and investment in Asia, while assuring potential strategic and trade partners the U.S. wanted partnership, not domination.
In a speech at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Pompeo called for the region to remain “free and open,” an implicit challenge to China’s approach to its neighbors.
“The Trump administration is committed to expanding our economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific region,” the secretary said. “We believe in strategic partnerships, not strategic dependency.”
The secretary made his case to a business community that has been skeptical of the administration’s position on trade. Prior to Mr. Pompeo’s remarks, Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue emphasized the importance of trade with and investment in the Indo-Pacific, describing the area as “the fastest-growing and most-dynamic region on earth.”
Mr. Donohue said there had been more than 150 bilateral or regional trade agreements among Indo-Pacific nations, in contrast with “just three free-trade deals” by the U.S. in the region, a reference to bilateral agreements with Australia, Singapore and South Korea.
“If we don’t get busy inking more deals and opening back up to the region, we’ll be left on the outside looking in,” Mr. Donohue said before introducing Mr. Pompeo. He touted the willingness of the private sector to collaborate with the administration in negotiating “new trade agreements with high standards.”
Immediately after taking office, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a pact that would have governed commerce among the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The remaining 11 countries in the TPP subsequently formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which incorporates much of the original agreement.
The secretary acknowledged that some may question the U.S. role in the region in light of the TPP withdrawal, but assured the audience the administration is committed to the Indo-Pacific and is working “to craft better, higher-standard bilateral trade agreements.”
Mr. Donohue called for the United States to “recommit to openness,” bolstering existing agreements and overcoming barriers to trade erected by countries in the region. He noted “the [TPP] is moving forward without us,” while the European Union and Japan have signed a trade agreement that eliminates billions in bilateral tariffs.
Addressing the audience of business leaders, diplomats and senior administration officials, Mr. Pompeo said that the U.S. “has played a foundational role in enabling the growth and wealth that we see across the entire Indo-Pacific today.”
The U.S. “will not seek dominance in the Indo-Pacific, and will oppose any country that does,” he said.
That work will continue, he maintained, as “it is clearly in America’s strategic interest to deepen engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The references to the Indo-Pacific region reflect the U.S.’s ongoing symbolic nod toward India. In May, the U.S. military changed the name of the military headquarters covering Asia and the Pacific Ocean from Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command. The Trump administration began using the term “Indo-Pacific” last year for the region known for many years as the Asia-Pacific, though it also has previously been called “Indo-Pacific” as well.
Write to Courtney McBride at Courtney.McBride@wsj.com