The Trump administration’s concept of the “Indo-Pacific” should be placed in the context of the main strategic aims of his administration: to preserve the world primacy of the US and to prevent a strong China from displacing the US in Asia. The concept was officially presented in December 2017 in (NSS 2017) and in the unclassified (NDS 2018) in January 2018.
In August 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aired the idea in his speech to the . He then talked about the “confluence of the two seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia.” On June 26, 2017, the Indo-Pacific was mentioned in the joint statement issued by Prime Minister and President after the former’s official visit to the White House. During Trump’s state visit to Japan in early November 2017, he and Abe discussed — and used — the Indo-Pacific concept.
Nearly one year after when Trump first in Da Nang, Vietnam on November 10, 2017, it is usually viewed internationally as his administration’s concept. So far, Trump’s Indo-Pacific has failed to get much support from Asian countries for a variety of reasons. First, Washington itself is unclear about what it means by Indo-Pacific. Secondly, the organization of the State and Defense Departments raise questions about who will craft and carry out a viable Indo-Pacific strategy. Thirdly – and unsurprisingly – America’s Asian friends and allies are unclear about what they understand or mean by it. Trump’s implacable hostility to China and his stress on bilateral economic ties — while declaring a trade war even on friendly countries — leaves Asian countries cold.
NSS 2017 articulates Trump’s uncompromising antagonism towards an economically and militarily powerful China. No Asian country goes along with his hostile stance, although some have territorial disputes with China and fear the possibility of its dominating Asia. Simultaneously, their strong trade and investment ties with China impel them to maintain a distance from Trump’s idea. Asian states want access to the large Chinese market, Chinese technology and cash to upgrade their infrastructure. Most have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Rivalry, investment and trading partnerships with China, rather than hostility, are intertwined in the dealings of most Asian countries with their powerful neighbor.
What Does the US Mean By “Indo-Pacific”?
In November 2017, Trump hailed Vietnam as being in “the very heart of the Indo-Pacific.” He highlighted the economic interests of the US and the need for reciprocal trading ties. Security issues were conspicuously absent from his address to APEC CEOs. NSS 2017 describes the Indo-Pacific as the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world, stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” But the document omits to mention the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The spotlight is on ASEAN and APEC as “centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture.” Subsequently, the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific has also been stressed by American officials. For instance, Defense Secretary James Mattis characterized ASEAN’s centrality as “vital,” at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018.
Both NSS 2017 and NDS 2018 condemn China’s expansionist tendencies, especially in the South China Sea (SCS). “Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability,” warns NSS 2017. They emphasise the need for Indo-Pacific countries to cooperate in shaping the region’s future and outline the main themes of the Free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. The themes include maritime security, interoperability with military partners, the rule of law, transparent governance, and the role of the private sector in advancing economic progress.
However, the Trump administration tends to speak in different voices at different times. For example, over the last few years, China’s occupation of reefs and islands in the SCS has sparked tension between countries laying claim to parts of the Sea. But shortly before the release of NSS 2017, James Hagerty, the US ambassador to Japan, avoided questions about the SCS and clarified that the “primary point of discussion” between Abe and Trump had been North Korea.
Washington has on several occasions denounced China’s occupation of islands in the SCS. The US has also accused China of building military installations on the reefs for the purposes of intimidation and coercion. But no cohesive American strategy to confront China in the SCS has emerged. That does make Southeast Asian countries feel uncertain about America’s professed intention to preserve freedom of navigation and security in the SCS.
To add to the confusion about the meaning and implications of the “Indo-Pacific,” America’s Asian friends have interpreted the label in different ways. Washington’s definition of the FOIP does not appeal to many Asian countries. Singapore — which is the chairman of ASEAN in 2018 — the FOIP because it does not know what the strategy entails. It has asked whether ASEAN would be central to the Indo-Pacific’s architecture. “Otherwise we become divided, or people just ride over us and we have no say,” says Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan. Singapore’s view is that the Indo-Pacific concept and China’s BRI, if properly envisioned and carried out, can coexist and benefit all in Southeast Asia. Thailand, an old American ally which stands at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is also unclear about the implications of the FOIP.
Meanwhile, what does Trump’s Indo-Pacific offer Indonesia, which also straddles the Indian and the Pacific Oceans? Comprising more than 14,000 islands, Indonesia aims to improve connectivity between them and to strengthen its maritime security. Like many ASEAN countries, but unlike India, Indonesia is part of China’s BRI. It has welcomed Chinese investment in diverse projects, ranging from energy to roads and railways. China is Indonesia’s top import and export partner.
While welcoming Chinese investment and trade, Jakarta is averse to being “controlled by the Belt and Road.” Indonesia has therefore taken steps towards realizing what it perceives as its “long-neglected maritime destiny.” At the 2014 East Asia Summit, President Joko Widodo outlined his vision of Indonesia as a Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), and to re-orient his country as an active player “in determining the future of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region.” Three years later, in September 2017, Indonesia asserted its sovereignty over the northern part of its exclusive economic zone in the SCS and renamed it the North Natuna Sea. China demanded that Indonesia revoke its decision, which had expanded the dispute in the SCS. The US will help Indonesia to maintain maritime domain awareness, uphold rule of law and secure freedom of navigation and in the South China and North Natuna Seas. But Indonesia’s dependence on trade with China will dissuade it from lining up with the US, if only because it would be afraid of getting involved in a US-China conflict.
Last but not least, how interested is Trump in Asia? His decision to stay out of the East Asia, APEC and America-Plus-ASEAN summits in mid-November 2018 suggests indifference to the concerns of Asian countries.
A strong American ally like South Korea views the FOIP as a Japanese initiative to link Japan with the US, Australia, and India. Seoul sees little benefit in joining them. With China as its foremost trading partner, and as the country which has the most leverage over North Korea, South Korea treads a difficult tightrope between the US and China. For Seoul, strategy is multidimensional and comprises military, economic, diplomatic, and cultural components. And if the US uses the FOIP as a springboard for Trump’s “America First” game plan, South Korea would be unwilling to join.
Some have tended to identify India as the central point of the Indo-Pacific. Like the US, India will not join China’s BRI, which it sees as a unilateral Chinese effort to extend its strategic influence. But it will also stay out of the US-Japan-Australia initiative, launched last July, to fund infrastructure projects to counterbalance the BRI in the Indo-Pacific region. India does not view the Indo-Pacific as a strategy or as a club of limited members and underlines multipolarity and non-bloc security architecture in the region. Also, it has a border dispute with China and seeks to stabilize ties with China.
The general problem is that Trump’s Indo-Pacific concept lacks substance and clarity, and so it has failed to win the support even of friendly Asian countries. In contrast, the BRI shows that China has a clear vision of the regional order it wants to create. It also has the skills and financial resources to implement its vision. Differing American and Asian perceptions of the Indo-Pacific are merely one reason why the concept does not have widespread support in Asia.
NSS 2017 calls for working in concert with US allies and partners, and about “quadrilateral cooperation” between four democracies: the US, India, Japan and Australia. In November 2017, Trump, Abe, Modi and Malcolm Turnbull, then Australian prime minister, revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad” after meeting at the ASEAN summit. The dialogue was initiated in 2007 by the US, Japan, India and Australia, but discontinued when Australia withdrew in 2008.
The member-states of the “new” Quad are divided about their aims in the Indo-Pacific. After the first Quad meeting on November 12, 2017, disagreement between them led to their issuing separate statements. The US and Australian statements used the term quadrilateral. The Indian statement did not mention freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, or maritime security. The Japanese statement made no reference to connectivity.
Although the US identifies ASEAN as the center of the Indo-Pacific, the Quad does not include any ASEAN member-state. So, the Quad holds little appeal for ASEAN countries. To them, centrality implies their consent to any strategy that affects them.
Also, the economic power of the Quad countries, especially of the US, Japan and Australia, could overshadow the importance and influence of the less strong ASEAN countries, and of ASEAN itself. And Singapore fears that the Quad could water the centrality of ASEAN down and get embroiled in a Sino-American conflict in Southeast Asia. Indonesia will only join the Quad if other ASEAN countries do so. In the absence of any ASEAN participant, the Quad appears to be a mechanism for pursuing rivalry against China rather than a collective reprimand of Beijing’s attempts to achieve pre-eminence in Indo-Pacific. That only makes it easy for Beijing to wave aside the Quad as a hostile group, making futile attempts to counter China’s power.
Vietnam is trying to strengthen military ties with all Quad countries, even as it tries to improve ties with China and resolve their dispute over parts of the SCS. But one of its top investors and trading partners is China, with which it must keep on good terms.
A Divided US Administration
At another level, the current stratified organization of the US State and Defense Departments also enhances scepticism about how any American strategy for the Indo-Pacific will be implemented. Within the State Department, four of its bureaus deal with the countries in the Indo-Pacific. They are the bureaus of East Asia and the Pacific, South and Central Asia, Near Eastern Affairs and African Affairs.
The Defense Department has renamed the US Pacific Command, which deals with South and Southeast Asia, as the Indo-Pacific Command. India’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Pakistan, come under the US Central Command. The strategically important islands in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa are covered by the US Africa Command. In short, there is no unified US planning for the Indo-Pacific.
China is expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean. So the renaming apparently takes note of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and of India’s military relevance to the US. But the renaming is a symbolic move, which will mean little unless the US outlines a clearer military strategy and deepens its military engagement in the Indian Ocean.
Economics and Strategy are Linked
Economic security is national security, asserts NSS 2017. Its focus is on blunting China’s competitive edge. For any Indo-Pacific strategy, it needs to entail a strong economic component if it is to compete with, or counter, the massive resources China has poured into its BRI. NSS 2017 certainly recognizes that China’s military power rests on its economic progress. For China’s rivals, the harsh reality is that China’s investments in Asia are unmatched by those of any other country. China has invested USD 3 trillion in Asia. How little the US is offering is seen by the USD 113 million offered to develop new private ventures focused on technology, energy and infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific. That too, after Malaysia suspended a USD 20 billion Chinese railway project because it feared becoming indebted to China. Interestingly, Prime Minister Mathahir Mohammad thinks that China understands Malaysia’s wish not to be colonized by a more powerful country. The two countries are trying to sort out their differences over Chinese investments. Meanwhile, Singapore wants the FOIP to benefit Southeast Asia’s economy and help local companies “make it into the big league.”
Even Japan, America’s close ally since the end of the Second World War, sees the BRI as a fait accompli. Tokyo and Washington are drawing up plans for a joint response by their armed forces to a Chinese threat to the Senkaku (Daioyu) Islands in the East China Sea. Japan’s engagement with the BRI allows Tokyo to pursue some of its own economic aims through greater infrastructure investment along the BRI route. During , he and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed agreements on 50 joint infrastructure projects along the BRI.
India presents the US with some awkward facts. As China’s main Asian rival in terms of political ambition, economic and human resources, India is far from competing successfully against China in Southeast Asia. NSS 2017 wants India to invest more in Asia. But India welcomes Chinese investment to upgrade its own infrastructure. In 2016, two-way trade between India and ASEAN moved up to USD 71.6 billion. In contrast, two-way trade between China and ASEAN stood at more than USD 452 billion.
Generally, suspicions of China are mixed with the wish of most Asian countries to cooperate with it and to secure Chinese investments on reasonable terms.
How Reliable is the US?
The sheer unpredictability of Trump worries America’s Asian friends and allies. Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, summed up the dilemma faced by ASEAN countries when he said that both the US and China are taking unilateral actions that deviate from global norms and challenge accepted rules of behavior. Countries should not be squeezed by competition between them or forced to take sides. ASEAN member-states have no choice but to try to find ways to adapt to the changing rules.
He is right. Since becoming president in January 2017, Trump’s dislike of multilateralism has led him to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He has failed to replace it with a viable regional economic strategy. Instead he has accused America’s Asian allies and friends of unfair bilateral trade practices and is waging simultaneous trade wars against them and China. His tough talk of reciprocity in bilateral trade is unconstructive.
Trump certainly makes the US look unreliable. After the historic Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader he surprised South Korea — and his own Defense Department — by cancelling annual military drills between the US and South Korea. His explanation? The US would save USD 14 million. But the USD 14 million price tag is an insignificant fraction of the Pentagon’s USD 700 billion budget. Seoul could only say that is was trying to figure out what Trump’s intention was and the exact meaning of it.
Meanwhile the Philippines wants the US to uphold its treaty commitments under their Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. So far Washington has given Manila no assurance that the Treaty is applicable to the areas of the SCS that are contested between the Philippines and China. The issue remains a sticking point between Washington and Manila. That makes it hard even for countries fearing China to jump on to any Trump-led bandwagon.
How Interested is Trump in Asia?
Last but not least, how interested is Trump in Asia? His decision to stay out of the East Asia, APEC and America-Plus-ASEAN summits in mid-November 2018 suggests indifference to the concerns of Asian countries. In contrast, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the summits. In the absence of Trump at those meetings, China (and Russia) will probably try to impress on their audience that they are the champions of Asia’s peace and welfare.
Will the presence of Vice-President Michael Pence at this year’s Asian summit talks suffice to convince Asian countries that the US can offer them greater security and prosperity than China? It is unlikely that Trump’s Washington will have an answer to this question. Uncertainty and worry about a fickle US exclude the chances of Washington’s imprecise Indo-Pacific concept becoming a strategy to counter China’s clout in Asia.