US President Donald Trump’s grand Asian tour and the APEC and ASEAN summits showed the changing political dynamics in the region, which was repeatedly described as the Indo-Pacific by him during his different stops in the region. Trump’s policy for the region lays greater emphasis on economic growth through bilateral trade and investment without indicating a renewed strategic American involvement in the region.
Trump’s tour was deemed a success back home in Washington because of the $235 billion worth of deals signed in Beijing. In Japan and South Korea the US President spoke of new military sales that could go to reduce their large trade deficit with the US.
The Indo-Pacific stretches from the East African coast across the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean and the seas that connect the two oceans. The term has been in occasional use, most frequently by Japan and by Australia. More recently it featured in the Indo-US joint statement in June 2017 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington. In India, the American usage of the term has been viewed by many as according a more prominent position for India in the region.
Trump’s 12-day five-nation tour of Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines was meant to articulate his Asian policy.
Old allies in the region have been concerned about American policies in the recent years. The Asia pivot announced by his predecessor Barack Obama had failed to take off while Trump’s seeming disinterest in the region coupled with his focus on ‘America First’ and trade deficits have been disturbing. It is uncertain whether his hosts were placated by Trump’s statements on the tour. Trump was feted and welcomed lavishly during his visit and he was fulsome in his praise for his hosts in China, and Philippines. He praised India, Japan and South Korea. After calling the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un ‘short and fat’, he indicated that dialogue could be an option with North Korea while he was visiting Seoul.
“It is in America’s interest,” he said, “to have partners throughout this region that are strong, independent and prosperous, in control of their own destinies, and satellites to no one.” Trump made clear that he favoured bilateral trade agreements and was not ready to rethink his opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership despite his hosts’ efforts to get the partnership off the ground. New trade partnerships with the US would be based on bilateral agreements.
The other 11 members agreed to go ahead with the Trans Pacific Partnership, renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Tans-Pacific Partnership, with a few changes and without out the US on board. Once meant to be a counter to China’s increasing economic clout, without the presence of America, it is Japan and Australia that would take the lead. Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric makes the partnership even more significant for its members.
Tensions had risen between China and its neighbours along with China’s rise in the global arena through the past decade, especially over the South China Sea.
But old equations are changing; the Asean meeting made it clear that the South China Sea issue was no longer roiling the region. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte set the tone before the Asean summit in Manila by saying: “The South China Sea is better left untouched.” Obviously, the South China Sea dispute is no longer a hot issue; Asean and China have agreed to begin talks on a proposed Code of Conduct for the South China Sea region.
Tensions are easing between China and Japan after a senior Japanese representative attended the Belt Road Initiative meeting in Beijing. Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe had two high profile meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping after the Apec meeting in Vietnam and the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Manila on the sidelines of the Asean meet. The South China dispute was not mentioned.
Washington has backed the Quadrilateral, comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia, which got started with the first official meeting of representatives of the four countries. The Quadrilateral concept is still to evolve into a grouping with a clear objective. The group is feeling its way on the ground to build on their several areas of congruence as the first meeting was attended by mid-level officials instead of senior leaders. The difference in nuances were evident in the US, Australia and Japan’s focus on the North Korean issue while Indian response was muted. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had separate bilateral meetings with the leaders of the other three member countries.
With the United States tending towards an inward-looking stance, it gives an advantage to China in its new assertive role. Trump has spoken of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” but his contradictory statements do not inspire confidence in the region.