Free and open Indo-Pacific a Trump 'legacy'

A free and open Indo-Pacific is being held up as a "legacy" of the Trump administration as it approaches its one year mark in office.
A free and open Indo-Pacific is being held up as a "legacy" of the Trump administration as it approaches its one year mark in office.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - A free and open Indo-Pacific - with the world's two largest democracies on either side of it and Asean as its crossroads in the middle - is being held up as a "legacy" of the Trump administration as it approaches its one year mark in office.

"The region has the world's largest democracy in India and the largest Muslim-majority country in Indonesia. Five of our top ten trading partners are in this region - Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Taiwan and China," Mr Brian Hook, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State, told journalists this week (Jan 8).

"It is unquestionably in our national interest to work with allies, partners, and regional institutions… to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains a place of peace, stability and growing prosperity. It cannot become a region of disorder and conflict.

"This is, I think, going to be a legacy piece of this administration."

Separately, a senior administration official told The Straits Times: "We are looking at... a commitment by the United States to promote and enforce continued open access, and sustain continued US pre-eminence, in a region that is absolutely vital to American prosperity and American security.

"It's a strategy that certainly recognises Asean centrality."

After the holiday lull, high level visits to Asia are due to resume soon


Apart from developments on the Korean peninsula, analysts are keenly watching the US's warming relationship with Vietnam. Mr Trump's National Security Strategy (NSS) explicitly mentions Vietnam along with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as "growing security and economic partners."

"We want to help Vietnam enhance maritime domain awareness and increase their capabilities," Mr Hook said. "We want to re-energise our alliance."

The US recognises doubts in the region - deepened when Mr Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) - over America's commitment and staying power. This came amid China's expanding economic footprint in mainland South East Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Africa.

There is scepticism in Washington's policy community - echoed in policy circles in India - over China's "predatory" economic policies.

This coupled with the inherited North Korean crisis, and China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, has the US wanting to push back.

"The administration has looked at problems that go back many years, in some cases where the can has been kicked down the road, where we haven't dealt in a concerted, whole-of-government manner to address some of the challenges" the senior administration official told The Straits Times.

Mr Hook told reporters: "We strongly believe that China's rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rules-based order… and that order is the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."

China in its "provocative militarisation" of the South China Sea was "pushing around smaller states in ways that put strains on the global system, and their actions also undermine core principles of sovereignty, which are very dear to us."

The US denies that it is trying to contain China. Free and open just means free and open, officials insist. Friction, they say, can be managed.

"Obviously the US is the hegemon in Asia and doesn't like an assertive China," Inderjeet Parmar, professor of international politics at the City, University of London, told The Straits Times in a telephone interview.

But the economic interdependence between the US and China, and cultural, educational and intellectual exchange, had since the 1980s become deep and long lived, he said.

"There are 300,000 Chinese students in America and 100,000 Americans in China. Even military to military relations at some level have been going on for a long time."

The US also needs China's help to contain North Korea. Mr Trump has essentially held off imposing tariffs on Chinese goods and services in exchange for China's cooperation on pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear missile programme.

China's influence over North Korea may be more limited than is often assumed, but America's strategy is to persuade China to fundamentally shift from seeing North Korea as a strategic ally - a buffer state - to a strategic liability.

This would appear to have paid off, analysts say. Last year China voted in favour of four United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning and sanctioning North Korea in the wake of its repeated missile tests and one nuclear test.