Free, open Indo-Pacific region touted as Trump legacy

US President Donald Trump's National Security Strategy explicitly mentions Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as "growing security and economic partners".
US President Donald Trump's National Security Strategy explicitly mentions Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as "growing security and economic partners". PHOTO: REUTERS

A free and open Indo-Pacific region - 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 nears the end of its first year in office.

"The region has the world's largest democracy in India, and the largest Muslim-majority country in Indonesia. Five of our top 10 trading partners are in this region - Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Taiwan and China," Mr Brian Hook, senior policy adviser to the US Secretary of State, said this week.

"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," he said.

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

Separately, a senior administration official, speaking to The Straits Times, said: "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."High-level visits to Asia are expected to resume soon, after the holiday lull.

Apart from developments on the Korean peninsula, analysts said they are keenly watching the US' warming relationship with Vietnam.

US President Donald Trump's National Security Strategy explicitly mentions Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as "growing security and economic partners".

Said Mr Hook: "We want to help Vietnam enhance maritime domain awareness and increase its capabilities."

 

The US recognises there are doubts in the region - deepened when the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership - over its commitment and staying power.

China, on the other hand, was expanding its 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... which we haven't dealt with in a concerted, whole-of-government manner, to address some of the challenges" the senior administration said.

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."

Officials have denied that the US is trying to contain China. Free and open means just that, they said. Friction can be managed, they added.

"Obviously, the US is the hegemon in Asia and doesn't like an assertive China," said international politics professor Inderjeet Parmar from the City, University of London. But the economic interdependence between the US and China, and cultural, educational and intellectual exchanges, have deepened since the 1980s, he said. "There are 300,000 Chinese students in the US 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. China's influence may be more limited than is often assumed, but the US 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 said. Last year, China voted for four United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning and sanctioning North Korea.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Free, open Indo-Pacific region touted as Trump legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe