Beginning 2018, US President Donald Trump’s vision of the ‘Indo-Pacific dream’ has hit the ground running. Indeed, like old wine in a new bottle, Indo-Pacific is the rechristened Asia-Pacific, with many partners on the ark, including India. The sweep of the region is vast though—friends and enemies, allies and non-allies—and includes India, South Korea, North Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, the ASEAN and Australia. The vision envisages a “connected and cooperative region stabilised by a durable balance of power.” India, like others, is getting on-board, but the Indo-Pacific dream is no cakewalk, with irritants along the way. Although America is in lead today of Indo-Pacific, it was not always so. In fact, the vision of Asia-Pacific was first rebooted as Indo-Pacific by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2007) on Indian soil. Abe, borrowing a metaphor from 17th century Mughal prince Dara Shikoh’s book Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas), made a cogent and far-sighted argument as to how the Pacific and Indian oceans could entail a “dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity,” underscored by Japanese diplomacy, creating an “the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.” For India, it was a happy coincidence; just as India was beginning to ‘Look East’, Japan was ‘Looking West’, past China, at India.
But the critical impetus to take it forward came from Hillary Clinton, who espoused a ‘Pacific Century’ (October 2011). The rest, as they say, is history. Given the backdrop of China rising and the understanding that America’s ‘resident power’ status was facing a challenge in Asia, the then US President Barack Obama responded by shaping the American ‘pivot to Asia’ (November 2011), what the United States Department of Defense called a “rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.” This was supported on ground by America relooking at its Pacific Command and allocation of resources to Asia. President Trump rechristened the ‘pivot’ into ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation 2017 in Da Nang, Vietnam, 2017—America’s post-pivot, post-rebalance strategy.
So far, sailing has been far from smooth. Partners like India remain intrinsically shy when it comes to joining alliances. Although America, as American scholar Jonathan Pollack says, likes to organise itself through “a hub and spoke system of bilateral alliances and a parallel network of less formal defence relationships,” India wears the hat of non-alignment. While we, in India, may see this as our self-interest, other countries such as China have long disparaged India ‘sitting on a fence’. The younger generation of Indians has instinctively backlashed against India’s ‘political correctness’—or India’s non-committal approach. Here, America sees no harm in pushing India out of its comfort zone.
For the time being, India has taken to the Chinese mantra “crossing the river by feeling for stones,” or feeling its way around China, America and Japan. On one hand, India has joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with the US, Australia and Japan in 2017, but had no Arunachal Pradesh tableau during the Republic Day in 2018, not to upend the China-cart. There may be a China-factor in the American vision. Recent debates throw light on a China-US ‘Thucydides trap’ where, as academic Graham Allison tells us, how a rising Athens (China) instilled a fear in Sparta (America). Many caution that a ‘civilisational clash’ is in the offing because of the Grand Canyon between American and Chinese moorings—China’s Confucian ethic, middle-kingdom complex and China’s unbroken civilisational entity and continuity, with American bearings and the recent year of the unpredictable factor.
The Chinese like to be in the know. For them, President Trump is not. He took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (in 2016), but later reaffirmed the One China policy. He initiated Super 301 trade investigation into China’s alleged violations of intellectual property rights (2017), but came away with a $250 billion agreement and investment during his China visit. Although Chinese scholar Qin Yaqing has said as much that China cannot “compete with, let alone emulate American power,” the reality of the China-factor in the South China Sea (and East China Sea, both with territorial disputes) and China’s growing economic leverage in the region (and beyond) is unsettling.
The first American freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) concluded earlier this year, coming within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal (which China calls Huangyan Island). But whether President Trump’s administration has nailed just how to deal with China—the jury is out there. Nothing has changed because America remains strong and continues to have the largest contingent of American troops in the region—South Korea (approximately 24,000 Americans across 83 sites), Japan (40,000 troops across 112 bases with the Seventh Fleet headquartered in Japan) and the Philippines (five bases), besides US military cooperation and military installations in the ASEAN.
But North Korea continues to evade solution. Under Kim Jong-un’s byungjin (parallel economic and military development), North Korea has conducted its sixth nuclear test (September 2017) and is testing long-range ballistic missiles, holding the neighbourhood to ransom. Newspaper reports have suggested that North Korea is flouting and bypassing UN sanctions, what with its booming black economy and back-door trade with countries as far out as Syria and Myanmar. Despite President Trump’s efforts to place North Korea on priority, academic Susan Shirk says that a combination of “mixed messages,” “threats to use military force” and “Twitter attempts at muscle flexing” have failed to resolve the situation.
What has received much attention in the ASEAN region (and beyond) is that America does not have an ambassador in place in South Korea. The recent pull-back of academic Victor Cha, as the ambassador-designate to South Korea (who had received security clearances and approval from South Korea), was received with much dismay. Prof Cha differed with the tone and tenor of the American policy, which did not preclude a military strike to give North Korea ‘a bloody nose’. The repercussions of even a preventive strike can be dramatically unsettling for South Korea and Japan, not to mention North Korea.
America does not have a point-man in the ASEAN, either. It is critical given that the ASEAN is negotiating a hotbed of claims in the South China Sea. Even Singapore, which heads the ASEAN chair, has no American ambassador in place. President Trump’s ambassador-designate to Singapore, KT McFarland, dropped out after months of acrimony over her role in the Russian probe.
American pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific is a given—buttressed by Russia’s eclipse, the inconclusive Cold War in the Korean peninsula, Japan’s lack of military teeth, Taiwan’s status, India-China border skirmishes, and the scenario of a rising China. President Trump, with his Indo-Pacific move, has provided a start, but with critical appointments in the region vacant, the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Indo-Pacific hinge have to be in place to really take off. President Trump’s unpredictability does make China uncomfortable, but insufficient action cannot be replaced by unpredictability alone.
Author is Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal