Indo-Pacific ties in the time of Trump

India must be prepared for counter-productive US moves and stand its ground on foreign policy across the East

The past month has seen hectic diplomatic activity having a crucial bearing on India’s ‘Act East’ policies of increasing strategic interaction and involvement across its eastern neighbourhood, from the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea.

An assertive China has violated international laws and conventions by seizing control of a number of islands by force, from neighbours such as Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The world also witnessed some clumsy American diplomacy involving military exercises off the shores of ally South Korea in a melodramatic but futile bid to coerce North Korea to desist from developing its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.

Opportunistic

On his first long tour abroad, President Donald Trump visited Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. He was in Hanoi and Manila primarily for multilateral meetings of APEC and the Asean-centric East Asia Summit. The Manila visit also provided an opportunity for a useful bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who reached out significantly to his Asean hosts by inviting them all for a summit-level get-together in Delhi on Republic Day, 2018.

Modi’s initiative was timely, as Asean itself is undergoing strains and differences, on how to deal with a growingly assertive China, which is providing Asean members with huge opportunities for investment and trade. This, at a time when Trump, with his emphasis on ‘America First’ policies, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, throwing to the winds prospects for meaningful increases in economic cooperation and integration with Asean while opening the doors for a China-centric order in the region.

The Manila summit coincided with an official-level meeting between India, Japan, Australia and the US (popularly known as the Quad), to develop a new basis for maritime and regional economic cooperation across what is now described as the Indo-Pacific Region, extending from the Gulf of Aden, where China has a full-fledged military base in Djibouti, to the South China Sea, an important trade route.

Even as China started voicing concern about the Quad, there was no joint statement after the meeting. It was, however, clear that the four countries shared similar views on issues like connectivity, respect for international conventions, maritime security and freedom of navigation and regional connectivity. There was a desire to move ahead collectively in balancing Chinese assertiveness and disregard for international laws and conventions on issues of freedom of navigation, over-flights and maritime boundaries, while avoiding references specifically targeting China. Australia and the US were, however, more direct than India and Japan in pointing fingers at China. Despite these subtleties, the Chinese will have no doubt that beginnings have been made by the four countries involved to balance Beijing’s growing, territorial and geopolitical ambitions.

Crude behaviour

We should be clear: the Trump administration behaves in manner that is often crude and counter-productive, even with close allies such as South Korea. On the eve of Trump’s visit to South Korea and despite the display of crude military power by the US, South Korea buckled under Chinese pressure and dropped a deal for acquiring more American missile defences. This followed the imposition of tight Chinese economic sanctions, lasting over 16 months, which caused widespread dislocation and loss of billions of dollars for Seoul’s largest companies, and an estimated loss of tourism revenues of over $15 billion following Beijing’s ban on Chinese tourists visiting South Korea.

Worse still, Trump’s war rhetoric holding out the threat of military conflict, caused virtual panic in South Korea, which would suffer the loss of thousands of lives if tensions with the North led to conflict across the border.

While Trump was fulsome in his praise for President Xi Jinping, the Chinese have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of fulfilling his demands for isolating Pyongyang and imposing crippling sanctions on North Korea. Pyongyang, after all, fulfils China’s ambitions of dominating the Korean peninsula. Moreover, while pleasantries were exchanged with the Philippines president, the blunt-spoken Rodrigo Duterte has decided to play along with the Americans while avoiding any action that could provoke China.

Within Asean, countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are too closely linked economically with China to speak out strongly on China’s extravagant claims about its maritime boundaries. The Quad will have to work out carefully crafted policies that ensure that countries like Vietnam and Indonesia stand firm on issues affecting their maritime security. New Delhi will face continuing inconsistencies and brash rhetoric in the policies and statements of Trump and his administration on issues ranging from China and North Korea, to the Lashkar-e-Taiba as it works in the Quad to balance Chinese economic and military power.

Crucial issue

Maritime security is set to become a crucial issue affecting our strategic perceptions in coming years. With a full-fledged military base in Djibouti, virtual control of Gwadar where Pakistan has abdicated any pretence of sovereign control, a significant stake in Hambantota and a growing economic presence in the port of Kyaukpyu which it is developing in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, China is set to develop what was years ago described as a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean.

At the same time, there are growing voices of dissent in a number of countries discovering that China’s much touted One Belt One Road project is really meant to use China’s surplus construction and infrastructure capacities to promote Beijing’s global geopolitical ambitions, by setting terms which force recipients to hand over crucial sectors of their economy and territory to Chinese control. Even a supplicant for Chinese assistance like Pakistan is realising that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will lead to Chinese control over both agriculture and industry, apart from mortgaging the strategic port of Gwadar virtually in perpetuity, while accepting the yuan as a parallel currency in the country. But, with its army now seeking a say in the financial administration of the country, Pakistan is set to be ruled by a military elite with little sense of national self-respect, as long as it can foster terrorism across its immediate neighbourhood.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on November 29, 2017

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