The Indo-Pacific narrative, US insularity, and China’s increasing influence

Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump, during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific’). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State Richard Tillerson, while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC), explicitly mentioned a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, an official statement from the US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier, too, the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. This was discussed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018, and between representatives of Japan, the US, and India in April 2018 when the three sides met in New Delhi, committing themselves to furthering connectivity between the countries.

China Factor

While members of the Quad have continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific concept is specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India, Australia, and France to work together in order to ensure a rules-based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President stated:

What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.

Evolving relationship between China-India and China-Japan

While it is good to talk about a rules-based order, and a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second, the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of the Malabar exercises last June (Japan, US, and India participated). Australia is a member of the Quad alliance and has been one of the vocal protagonists of the Free and Fair Indo-Pacific narrative. Canberra has also expressed vocally the need for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has on more than one occasion expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations, though India has been dismissive of this argument.

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said such a possibility was discussed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to improve ties with China, recently reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly, the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) projected to be components of the Indo-Pacific strategy, has even gone to the extent of stating that it does not perceive the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, the President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao, stated that “AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does the Indo-Pacific move from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not an unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang, had stated that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, especially in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important for the Indo-Pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.

Lunchtime Links

  1. 25 years after Waco Freedom of Conscience and the Rule of Law
  2. The US-Japan Alliance and Soviet competition | Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”
  3. Japan’s rent-a-family industry | In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity
  4. The story of the skull of a victim of the Indian Uprising of 1857 | Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, III
  5. Reviving India’s classical liberal party | Classical Liberalism and the Nation State
  6. The decline of regional American art | A History of Regional Governments
  7. Michelle Pfeiffer keeps getting better and better | On the paradox of poverty and good health in Cuba
  8. “It was the most devastating loss in the history of the Library.” | No, natural disasters are not good for the economy

Nightcap

  1. The art of everyday politics in imperial China Michael Szonyi, Aeon
  2. Busting the myth of Global Britain Nick Pearce, New Statesmen
  3. The Russia-Turkey-Iran Axis is flimsy, at best Dimitar Bechev, American Interest
  4. Does the West have a vision for the Western Balkans? Mieczysław Boduszyński, War on the Rocks

Bolton’s Iran policy: could it strengthen the China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan axis?

John Bolton, who took over as Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser on April 8, has had significant differences with India on a number of issues in the past. As US Ambassador to the UN, he opposed India’s elevation to the United National Security Council (UNSC), even at a time when relations were at a high during the Manmohan Singh-Bush era. Bolton had initially opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, though later he lent his support. While the Trump administration has sought to elevate India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, Bolton has expressed the view that there are some fundamental differences between India and the US. In the short term, though, there is no serious divergence.

Bolton and Iran

What would really be of concern to India however is Bolton’s hawkish approach towards Iran. Bolton’s views are not very different from those of US President Donald Trump and recently appointed Secretary of State John Pompeo. Bolton is opposed to the Iran Nuclear Agreement signed between Iran and P5+1 countries in 2015. In 2015, the NSA designate called for bombing Iran, last year he had criticized the deal, and last year he had called for scrapping the deal.

The Iranian response to Bolton’s appointment was understandably skeptical. Commenting on Bolton’s appointment, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said: Continue reading

Recent developments in the context of Indo-Pacific

At a time when a massive churn is taking place in the Donald Trump Administration (HR Mcmaster was replaced as head of the NSA by John Bolton, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced with the more hawkish Mike Pompeo), Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave a briefing with regard to the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, on April 3, 2018 (a day before a trilateral dialogue took place between senior officials from India, Japan and US). Wong outlined the contours of the strategy, and spoke not just about the strategic vision, but also the economic vision of the US, with regard to the Indo-Pacific.

A backgrounder to the Indo-Pacific, Quad, and the China Factor

For a long time, the US referred to the region as ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which China prefers), but the current Trump Administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. During his visit to East Asia and South East Asia, in November 2017, the US President had used the term more than once (much to the discomfort of China) giving a brief overview of what he meant by a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. While speaking to a business delegation at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Trump spoke about ‘rule of law’ and playing by the rules. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had referred to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad Alliance (consisting of US, India, Japan, and Australia) in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a Washington think tank)  in October 2017, a week before his India visit.

In order to give a further thrust to the Quad, representatives of all four countries met on the eve of East Asia Summit in Manila. A statement of the Indian Foreign Ministry said: Continue reading

Can Elizabeth Warren help turn the populist tide?

During her recent visit to China, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (perceived by many as a potential Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party in 2020), came down heavily on US President Donald Trump’s approach towards foreign policy, arguing that it lacks substance, is unpredictable, and does not pay much attention to liberal values and human rights, which according to her has been the cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.

Trump’s unpredictability

Commenting on Trump’s unpredictable approach towards Asia, Warren stated:

This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in.

Critical of US approach towards China

Warren met with senior Chinese officials including Liu He, vice-premier for economic policy, Yang Jiechi, a top diplomat, and the minister of defense, Wei Fenghe, and discussed a number of important issues including trade and the North Korea issue.

Warren criticised China for being relatively closed, and stated that the US needed to have a more realistic approach towards Beijing. She also spoke of the need for the US to remain committed to raising Human Rights issues, and not skirt the issue, while dealing with China.

Said the Democratic Senator: Continue reading

3 key problems with Trump’s style of functioning

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision:

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:

Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.

It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.