Opinion: Donald Trump needs more than words to make his vision for Asia a reality

The president’s talk of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ will appeal to many nations, but it will take effort and committed US diplomacy to achieve, writes Ankit Panda

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 10:49pm

Susan Thornton, the United States’ Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs declared authoritatively earlier this year that the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia was no more.

“I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation,” she said in March. “We haven’t seen in detail what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation.”

Now, US President Donald Trump’s first trip to Asia while in office has outlined a new rhetorical vision for the region, which the United States is now calling the “Indo-Pacific”. This is a departure from the older Asia-Pacific geographic appellation that emphasises a broader and maritime oriented conception of the region, with a role for India, the world’s largest democracy.

In Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Trump, in one way or another, made reference to the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. The idea itself remains mostly a spiritual successor to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia with one important difference – a lack of support for robust and liberalised multilateral trade regimes.

It’s no longer Asia-Pacific, Donald Trump says. US now calls it ‘Indo-Pacific’

In Da Nang, Vietnam, before chief executives gathered on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Trump delivered an important speech on this theme.

Trump summed up the Indo-Pacific as a “place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side and thrive in freedom and in peace”.

Implicitly, the concept is designed to shore up the status quo regional architecture and the rules-based order in Asia, plus offer a compelling alternative to China’s competing grand vision: the “Belt and Road” initiative.

Trump concluded his speech with a subtle reference to the Chinese scheme, noting that in this “free and open” Indo-Pacific and the world at large, there would be “many roads”.

US Secretary of State Jim Mattis, in a congressional hearing in October, was less subtle: “I think in a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘One Belt, One Road’.”

The administration has a better sense of the kind of Indo-Pacific it would like to see, but is less clear – at least at the highest levels of the executive branch – about how it will get there. If one thing is clear for now, it’s that the United States won’t be preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific on its own.

In Manila, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, senior officials from the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – below ministerial level – reconvened a quadrilateral grouping that had been shelved in 2007.

Originally proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2006, this grouping of like-minded Indo-Pacific democracies was meant to consult on the sustainment of the liberal international order in Asia.

In 2007, the “quad,” as it was called, disbanded, only to meet a decade later in Manila.

It’s important to take this meeting of the “quad” with a sense of perspective.

Yes, these are four like-minded democracies with an interest in seeing an Indo-Pacific order in the 21st century that much resembles the Indo-Pacific order of the late-20th century. While critics of the arrangement may point to it as a transparent attempt by these democracies to “contain” an increasingly ambitious China, it remains unclear if this is even a realistic or attainable goal in both a globalised world and an irreversible interconnected Asia.

For now, too, the “quad” has only just met at the working group level. It will take some time for a ministerial meeting and, eventually, if ever, for a leaders’ meeting.

Finally, while the region took in what Trump meant by this new concept at Da Nang, it had his fawning respect for Chinese President Xi Jinping fresh in mind, too. Trump’s demeanour with Xi in Beijing, if anything, undermined his unveiling of this new strategic concept even before his anticipated speech.

Either way, the Trump administration appears to have settled on a vision of continuity for the Asia-Pacific. Even as “America First” continues to remain the administration’s overarching guiding principle, in Asia, for US allies and partners looking for hints of continuity and continued US engagement, the free and open Indo-Pacific concept will carry appeal.

Wary China on ‘Quad’ bloc watch after officials from US, Japan, India and Australia meet on Asean sidelines

Unfortunately, appeal alone and visionary canned speeches will take the administration only so far. The hard work for realising this vision and preserving the regional architecture will require deft diplomacy, enthusiastic engagement and, above all, stamina. It’s still an open question if the Trump administration can muster up these necessary ingredients for the success of its vision.

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat where he writes on international security, diplomacy and economics in the Asia-Pacific region