By M.R. Josse
NEW YORK, NY: Understandably, American President Donald Trump’s current 12-day, 5-nation East Asia journey has received intense global attention given that his geopolitical hopscotch is the most significant of his presidency.
At the time of writing, he is in Japan; thereafter, he will visit South Korea and China before attending two regional summits: in Vietnam and the Philippines. (According to one media report, he is skipping the latter.)
Yet, as he set out on his Asian odyssey, a New York Times report described it as one with an ambitious agenda but with little to offer. In Danang, Vietnam, the venue of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Trump may hold his second face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
More importantly perhaps, there, Trump is reportedly expected to unveil a new Asian policy centred on the concept of a free and open “Indo-Pacific” which seems redolent of the once-much-heard of, but abortive anti-China alliance of Japan, Vietnam, India and Australia, of which more later.
According to most analysts, North Korea – where he is NOT going – will dominate the agenda for his maiden diplomatic East Asian foray, a veritable minefield. Indeed, it requires no special perspicacity to visualise that Pyongyang’s nuclear/missile ambitions will be the central focus of every bilateral meeting, economic discussion and commercial declaration connected with Trump’s on-going diplomatic expedition.
Notably, while Trump, in the global perception, represents a scandal-scarred and weakened American presidency, his voyage takes place against the backcloth of the recently empowered Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and Chinese President, Xi Jinping.
His erratic behavior and the shadow of the Russia investigations in Washington that continues to dog his administration, and its shaky commitment to the region, stand in sharp contrast not only to Abe’s and Xi’s greatly enhanced national profile and prestige, of late, but also to the fact that, since Xi’s elevation in power, South Korea and China have come closer together, even settling a persisting dispute over the rollout of an American anti-missile system in South Korea.
Although a credible overall assessment of Trump’s diplomatic travels and travails in East Asia will only be possible after he returns to Washington and the dust settles, it may be useful, in the interregnum, to mull over some illuminating observations made in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.
Declaring that Trump’s ‘Pacific Strategy’ is to “meet the challenges of North Korea’s nuclear breakout and China’s bid for regional hegemony”, WSJ’s leading article does not shy away from identifying several key obstacles in that regard.
These include the fact that “South Koreans are naturally sensitive about cooperation with Japan given their colonial past. India has doubts about Australia’s reliability after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled out of a joint exercise a decade ago. Asian countries are increasingly reliant on China as a trading partner and investment source and are nervous about offending Beijing.”
WSJ also points out “the contradiction in Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership pact, which cost the US a key building block of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
While WSJ seems to be gung-ho about the nebulous concept of a US-backed “Indo-Pacific” – code for an anti-China coalition composed of Japan, India, Vietnam and Australia – it does not attempt to explain how the United States can be seen working in concert to contain China, while at the same time seeking its urgent and close cooperation in dealing with the tricky North Korean issue, one that directly impinges on American national security interests!
It appears to ignore the reality of an ever solidifying Sino-Russian strategic partnership, as also recent shifts in Russia’s South Asian diplomacy, which now includes warm relations with Pakistan. Russia is, besides, not only a key Pacific power but one that has a more than casual role to play in any future strategy in defusing the ticking North Korean nuclear time-bomb.
Apart from the impediments that WSJ has itself identified, one must not be oblivious to the lessons of history, particularly while making sweeping accusations of “regional hegemony” against China. In the Pacific, for example, it is not China – but Japan – that has waged war, seeking hegemony, including against the US, Vietnam, India and Australia, among others! As all know, Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima have no Chinese characteristics!
Finally, where the spurious, new-fangled “Indo-Pacific” concept is concerned, the Indian Ocean, it will be salutary to note, washes the shores not only of India but dozens of states along its rim, including those along the East African coast.
If the aforementioned ‘quadrilateral alliance’ against China did not take off decades ago, how credible is it to assume that it will now succeed when China’s might and reach, in economic and military terms, has sky-rocketed, making her the world’s second super power?
Additionally, as WSJ itself acknowledges, why would Asia-Pacific nations incur the wrath of a puissant China when there are far more sensible alternatives, including that of promoting economic prosperity and peace by opting for friendly, cooperative relations with Beijing?
Is there a Nepal angle, or corollary, to the above? There is – and it is this: If India imagines that, riding piggy-back on the shoulders of the United States, Japan, Vietnam and Australia, she can reap a bountiful harvest of geostrategic goodies, including getting a stranglehold on Nepal, she is likely to be even more interventionist than she has been in the past.
Already, as per a flurry of news reports, the Indian ambassador is in an election campaign mode, while the Nepali Congress issues tickets to politicians described as progeny of Kazi Lhendup Dorji of Sikkim, who facilitated its merger with India.
Will such a blatant interventionist policy work for the ‘baadshahs’ of Delhi? Or, will it backfire, favoring the Left alliance’s electoral prospects? While only time will tell, it might be worthwhile to monitor how Beijing seeks to safeguard her interests in such an environment.