[SCMP Column] From Trade to Theatre

November 13, 2017

If the sealing of a TPP11 trade deal that now excludes the US was a deliberate stick in the eye to Donald Trump when APEC leaders gathered at the weekend in Danang in Vietnam, so Trump had a stick of his own very much aimed at China – the newly minted concept of the “Indo-Pacific”.

Despite being hosted by Vietnam at the annual leaders meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where all talk was of the Asia-Pacific, Trump stuck with firm resolve to using the term “Indo-Pacific”. Though the term has been lurking around for a decade, never before has it been so firmly and defiantly embraced in place of the “Asia-Pacific” phrase we have become comfortable with.

There is a certain irony here. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was originally embraced by the US as a trade deal to keep China firmly in its place. Trump’s very theatrical abandonment of the TPP quickly after he came into office in January blunted that cause. Left for ashes, with Trump and many other Americans thinking the TPP could not possibly proceed without the US at the party, there must be very real US irritation that the residual 11 signatories have gone ahead anyway – with a firm commitment to multi-country cooperation that flies in the face of Trump’s “America first” preference for bilateral deals.

This left Trump alone at the Danang party, and without any clear strategy to ensure that China is kept firmly in its place in the Asia-Pacific. But Eureka... along comes the neat new concept of the “Indo-Pacific”.

To be fair, the idea is not new. Wikipedia identifies the Indo-Pacific as “a biogeographic region comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia”.

The trouble with this concept from Trump’s point of view is that this ocean region does not include the temperate and polar regions of the Indian and Pacific oceans, nor the Pacific coast of the Americas.

But a more helpful meaning was coined in 2007 by the Indian navy Captain Gurpreet Khurana in India’s military-funded National Maritime Foundation, defining the common strategic interests of India, Japan and the US in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The idea was taken further during the US-India Strategic Dialogue in 2013 where US Secretary of State John Kerry played with the concept of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor “in transforming the prospects for development and investments as well as for trade and transit between the economies of South and Southeast Asia”.

Since then, Japan’s Shinzo Abe has played occasionally with the phrase – again in efforts to place Japan in a region that clearly stretches beyond China’s sphere of influence – but it is only since Trump came into office that the concept has begun to find common use.

In a joint statement after a White House meeting in June, India’s Narendra Modi and Donald Trump said that “as responsible stewards of the Indo-Pacific region” they agreed on a close US-India partnership as “central to peace and stability in the region”. They said they would expand and deepen their strategic partnership, including “combatting terrorist threats, promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region, increasing free and fair trade, and strengthening energy linkages”.

Following up on this in Korea just a few weeks ago, Rex Tillerson described the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a “single strategic arena” and described India and the US as the “bookends” of the “Indo-Pacific” region.

While the concept is still being cooked, it has several core intents: to develop stronger bonds between a family of democracies – in particular the US, India, Japan and Australia; to improve co-ordination between their militaries; and to provide a counterweight to China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” world view.

What distinguishes the concept is first, and obviously, its focus on India which is so conspicuously absent from so many regional dialogues; second, its military/strategic emphasis; and third its implied imperative to contain China’s increasing clout in the Asia-Pacific region.

Trump’s decision to air his new strategic concept at the APEC leaders’ meeting was interesting, and probably contentious. APEC is conspicuously not a military or strategic forum, with its eyes firmly focuses on economic cooperation. And given China’s liberalizing embrace at the meeting, there were many of APEC’s 21 member economies anxious not to beat an “Indo-Pacific” drum. That perhaps explains the muted response to Trump’s speech, with comments only from those with no reasons to curry favour with Trump. Evan Medeiros, a former top Asia adviser to Mr ?Obama, noted that the prospects for the Indo-Pacific strategy were uncertain: “It has no serious economic component, relies conceptually on an ambivalent India, and looks like China containment to many Asian leaders,” he said.

Whatever the prospects of the Trump administration’s new “big idea”, and the very real sense that Trump struck a solitary pose in Danang at an annual event that is all about gregarious affability, his truculent comments raise a very real question: To what extent is it helpful to exclude an economy of India’s size and importance from a massive economic grouping like APEC? This has been an increasingly pressing debate within APEC for several years.

For the pedants in the region, India is clearly geographically outside. Rule number one of APEC was that member economies should have a Pacific coastline. But does Russia’s Pacific coastline give it better credentials for a seat at the table than India?

Others mischievously but reasonably complain that India is so fiercely protectionist that Indian APEC membership would quickly stall all liberalizing progress. One can sympathise with this concern, but is India better outside the tent than in? Is Delhi’s traditional “India first” positioning any different from Trump’s espousal of “America first”? Can we really exclude an economy that is home to so many of the world’s economic problems, and home to so much of its future potential?

For now, I think Trump’s embrace of the “Indo-Pacific” can be dismissed as a piece of petulant theatre. For now, there are plenty of other important things to be getting on with in the “Asia Pacific”.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opnions expressed are entirely his own. 
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