Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical concept predates Donald Trump’s entry into the American White House. There is no doubt that President Trump gave this concept official stamp when his National Security Strategy Report articulated and defined the Indo-Pacific region. The next step was, of course, renaming the Indo-Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had tried to new give a new name to his approach to Asia—pivot to Asia. When statements and comments on “pivot to Asia” by several US officials and even policy scholars made this policy appear as an anti-China step and China took serious objection to it, the Obama Administration switched it to “Asia Rebalancing” policy. Rebalancing sounded better than “containment”. The Chinese Government still thought it was the same policy with a new nomenclature. “Asia Rebalancing” policy included deployment of more naval forces in the Asia-Pacific theatre, support to active involvement of the US in negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and further strengthening relationship of the United States with alliance partners, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and new strategic partners, such as India and Vietnam, in the Asia-Pacific.
Asia rebalancing policy was to continue engaging China in trade and investment matters, enhancing US engagements with ASEAN and other smaller countries that were neglected during prolonged “war on terror”, increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea through the six-party talk mechanism and more robust trade and investment relations with the Asia-Pacific countries.
President Donald Trump, in his penchant for undoing what Obama did, sought to overturn the terms, conditions and pattern of US engagement with the Asia-Pacific countries. On his very first day of assuming office, President Trump withdrew from TPP negotiations. He clearly signalled that China, in his view, was strategic rival and that he would end cuddling China and take tougher measures to alter policies that led to unprecedented trade deficits and huge loss of intellectual property. Days of “constructive engagement” and softer policy approach towards China were to end.
At the same time, Trump felt that Washington under the administrations of most of his predecessors were rather too soft on the US allies. He thought that the US was highly subsidizing the protection of allies from potential enemies and that Japan, South Korea and Australia needed to pay more and do more to sustain the alliance. He understood that Pakistan’s strategic relevance would remain as long as the US troops would remain on the Afghan soil, but he preferred not to buckle under Islamabad’s pressure to turn a blind eye to misuse of US funds by Pakistan diverting it to pay the terrorists and insurgents who were battling the US forces in Afghanistan. He wanted to punish Pakistan by suspending assistance, a measure his predecessor clearly refrained from taking a chance.
The most unorthodox step that Trump took was his decision to hold a summit meeting with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Trump appeared confident that he would be able to convince the North Korean strongman to give up the nuclear options in exchange of US assistance, lifting of sanctions and helping North Korea develop civil nuclear power. It never occurred to him that Kim would not take his offer seriously at a time when Iran was branded as an enemy, the Iran nuclear deal was trashed and newer sanctions were threatened on even friendly countries that were buying oil and gas from Iran. After meeting Donald Trump twice, Kim landed in Moscow to renew ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin!
Significantly, Donald Trump did not spare India either. He uttered words and adopted policies that would challenge a strategic partnership that was very carefully nurtured from the early days of 21st century and had bipartisan support in the policymaking circles within Washington’s Beltway. His visa policy, tariff policy, climate policy all adversely affected India and raised questions about the US intentions. He felt only comfortable that India was buying more arms from the US by spending billions and tried to facilitate the process further.
The Trump Administration even after two years in office has not been able to come up with any vision document or work-plan or all-rounded policy paper on “Indo-Pacific”. Business relations are certainly transactional, but strategic equations are more than that. Strategic equations are never based on financial profit or loss calculations alone. What the Trump White House has been doing is to see every policy, climate, alliances, or strategic partnerships only in terms of business formula.
Now the question arises whether Trump’s Indo-Pacific concept can survive his administration. In its present form, it will continue to be meaningless even during his second term, if any. If there is a change in administration, no one knows if there would be a phase of de-Trumpeization or the concept would be made more coherent and meaningful.
TPP has survived Trump’s withdrawal from it. Indo-Pacific construct can also survive with or without Trump. But Japan, India, Australia and others have to take a call well in time.