Planning for the Post-Trump Foreign Policy Wreckage


August 31, 2018

Planning for the Post-Trump Foreign Policy Wreckage

When the president eventually exits the White House, the rest of us will quickly have to make sense of the world he’s left behind.

Donald Trump speaks during an event to announces a grant for drug-free communities support program, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks during an event to announce a grant for drug-free communities support program, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

One of the many unfortunate consequences of U.S. President Donald Trump’s cavalier, corrupt, and capricious handling of foreign policy is that it discourages farsighted thinking about the global agenda. Even worse, it is gradually undermining the institutional capacity the United States will need to deal with that agenda. To a first approximation, the people who are most alarmed by his actions (and I include myself among them) are spending a lot of their time circling the wagons and trying to minimize the damage that he and his minions do while in office. They are like parents trying frantically to corral a rambunctious toddler (hat tip to Dan Drezner) who is running amok through a china shop: All the attention is on saving as much of the crockery as possible, and nobody has any time to think about what they’ll do once the kid has finished smashing things.

It’s understandable that people are trapped in a reactive mode, because Trump’s genius is his ability to make nearly everything all about him and to focus attention on whatever his latest outrageous antic is. What other president could or would make himself the center of attention when a prominent senator died or express his disagreement with an important allied leader by tossing candy at her? Trump may be terrible at running the government, but his ability to command attention through outrageous behavior makes Madonna look like an amateur.

Yet we should resist the urge to remain in a defensive crouch. Yes, there’s a lot of damage being done these days, and resisting Trump’s worst impulses is important. But there are plenty of problems out there that will require attention in the not-too-distant future, and where the appropriate solutions aren’t immediately obvious. Careful and creative thought will be needed to figure out an appropriate destination and then to chart a course to get there. It is not too soon, therefore, for foreign-policy mavens to start thinking about the post-Trump world, not simply to restore the pre-Trump status quo but in order to figure out arrangements that acknowledge new realities and are appropriate for the conditions we will face in the future.

No doubt each of you has your own list of priorities, but for what it’s worth, here are a few of mine.

#1: The Architecture of Great Power Politics

When he ran for president back in 1992, Bill Clinton once declared that “the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” He was expressing the widespread belief (pious hope?) that humanity had turned a corner at the end of the Cold War, and that the old logic of great power rivalry was now behind us. He was dead wrong, alas, and great power politics are now back with a vengeance.

But the form and intensity of that rivalry remains open, and the nature of relations among today’s great powers needs to be shaped through farsighted diplomatic action. Will the United States disengage and let Europe and Asia (mostly) go their own way? Will the United States, its NATO allies, and Japan link up with others to contain Russia, China, and their various regional partners? Should the United States make a concerted effort to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, perhaps by trying to work out an agreement on Ukraine and promoting a security architecture for Europe and Russia that reduces each side’s fears? Where will countries like India fit into the constellation of great powers, and where should the United States want it to be?

It is all well and good to obsess about “saving NATO” or “preserving a liberal order,” but those short-term, reactive goals do not eliminate the need to think hard about what sort of great power relations are realistic and desirable in the decades ahead. At key moments in world history—such as 1815, 1870, 1919, 1945, and 1993—the leaders of the great powers had to imagine and then try to implement visions of great power politics designed to preserve key interests, ideally without (much) resort to force. They were sometimes successful; at other key moments, they failed miserably. The problem cannot be avoided, but we are more likely to end up with arrangements we like if we start thinking through the possibilities now. 

#2: The Brave New World of Cyber:

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t foresee all of the ways that digitalization, social media, and other aspects of the cyber-world would shape both international and domestic politics. Sure, there’s been a lot of hype and threat inflation about cybersecurity, cyberwar, and cyber-everything else, but in 2018 it’s impossible to deny that these issues are affecting us all in pretty far-reaching ways. Indeed, even the suspicion that bad guys are using the internet to manipulate politics can have effects all on its own.

Instead of moving energetically to address these issues, however, Trump fired the White House cybersecurity coordinator and eliminated the position, repeatedly denied that anybody interfered in the 2018 election, and now is tweeting out accusations that Google is biased against him. Instead of developing a coherent U.S. policy and trying to negotiate an international code of conduct that might mitigate these problems, he’s kicking the can down the road.

But does anyone believe these issues will simply disappear on their own? Surely not. Which means more farsighted people will have to start developing policies that can preserve the benefits of the digital revolution while protecting us from its dark downside.

#3: New Institutions for the World Economy

It is now obvious that contemporary globalization did not deliver as promised for millions of people—though it did have significant benefits for the Asian middle class and the global 1 percent—and that the main institutions set up to manage global trade and investment need serious rethinking. This is partly because some countries (e.g., China) have complied poorly with some of the rules, though no country’s track record is perfect, and because unfettered globalization did not allow individual countries to tailor arrangements in order to support key cultural or national priorities.

This is not my area of expertise, and I’m not going to offer any detailed advice on what should be done. For what it’s worth, I find my colleague Dani Rodrik’s arguments on allowing nations greater autonomy within the global trading and investment order, so that their participation does not produce wrenching social dislocations at home, convincing. Less globalization might be more, therefore, but less globalization does not mean zero.

As near as I can tell, the Trump administration’s approach to these issues has been to use U.S. economic leverage to bully other countries into making minor economic concessions, which Trump can then hail as the “beautiful” new trade deals that he promised back in 2016. That’s what happened with South Korea and what appears to be happening with NAFTA. But what’s missing, at least so far, is any attempt to develop a larger set of institutions or arrangements that would safeguard the wealth-enhancing elements of (mostly) open trade and avoid both the obvious costs of a trade war and the social turmoil of hyper-globalization. Again, it’s not my field, but I sure hope Dani isn’t the only person thinking about what a new global economic order should look like.

#4: Whither the Middle East? 

If the architecture of great power politics is now uncertain and will require creative diplomacy to adapt to and shape, that goes double in the troubled Middle East. Thus far, the Trump administration has mostly doubled down on supporting America’s longtime Middle East partners: giving a free hand to Israeli expansionism, backing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military dictatorship in Egypt, and encouraging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious domestic reforms and his increasingly reckless regional behavior (most notably and tragically in Yemen), as well as ramping up pressure on America’s perennial bête noire, Iran. Trump has also stumbled into a pissing contest with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, but Erdogan is at least as prickly and desperate for scapegoats as Trump himself, and a cynic might argue that the two leaders deserve each other.

Although it’s possible that National Security Advisor John Bolton will still get the war with Iran that he has long favored, the bigger questions are what the U.S. role in the region will be over the longer term and how it will deal with problems that are going to come home to roost eventually. Former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all openly backed a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, and each tried to bring it about in their own not-very-effective fashion. The two-state solution is now on life support if not completely dead, however, which raises the obvious question: If “two states for two peoples” is impossible, then what is does the United States support? Does it believe Israel should become a one-state democracy, with full political rights for all inhabitants, including the Palestinians who are now under strict Israeli control and denied political rights? Do Americans think those Palestinians should be kept in a state of permanent subjugation (aka apartheid)? Is the United States in favor of Israel expelling them to some other country? Nobody really wants to think about awkward questions such as these, let alone answer them, but Trump’s successors are going to get asked. Might be a good idea to start formulating a response.

And that’s just one issue. The United States will also need to figure out if it wants to continue its (mostly futile) efforts to mold local politics all over the region or revert back to the strategy of “offshore balancing” that it employed there from 1945 to roughly 1991. Should it strive for a modus vivendi with Iran—in the service of maximizing U.S. leverage and maintaining a regional balance of power—or continue to flirt with regime change? And it is worth asking if the Middle East is even as vital a region as it once was, given the shale gas revolution back in the United States, the imperative to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and the rising strategic importance of Asia?

#5: Rebuilding Foreign Policy Capacity and Expertise

Unfortunately, the United States will be grappling with all of these problems with a severely depleted foreign-policy capacity. The travails of the State Department are well known, but there has also been exceptionally high turnover among key Trump aides and a general erosion of nonpartisan experience and expertise throughout the government. Trump’s repeated attacks on the intelligence agencies and his efforts to politicize the civil service aren’t helping either. Lord knows I’m critical of the “Blob” and its tendency not to hold itself accountable and to stick with strategies that aren’t working, but the answer is a better foreign-policy establishment, not amateur hour.

Accordingly, planning for a post-Trump world will also require a sustained effort to rebuild the institutional and administrative capacity for an effective foreign policy. Having an effective and professional civil and foreign service is critical in a system such as America’s, because so many top jobs get replaced whenever the White House changes hands, and many senior officials take months if not years to be nominated and confirmed. Moreover, a lot of them stay in their posts for only a year or two, creating further disarray and churn within the government. Add to that America’s odd practice of letting big campaign donors serve in important diplomatic posts or management positions, and you have a recipe for trouble.

This problem wouldn’t be a big issue if the United States had modest foreign-policy goals, but that is hardly the case. Instead, it is trying to run the world with perhaps the most disorganized and dysfunctional system imaginable. Accordingly, farsighted patriots need to start planning how to restore expertise, analytic capacity, and accountability now, so that this process can begin swiftly once Trump is gone.

The list presented here is far from complete, and it’s easy to think of other issues (e.g., climate change, proliferation, migration, etc.) where imaginative thinking is going to be needed. But my central point remains: Preserving the status quo against Trump’s wrecking operation is not enough. Instead of just playing defense, his critics need to start thinking about the positive goals they intend to pursue once he’s left the political stage. And there’s an added benefit in this course of action: The most obvious way to convince Americans that Trump’s policies are mistaken is to show them a better alternative.

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018


August 30, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 438

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018

by Dr. David Scott

Dr. David Scott explains that “The Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017.”

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defence Marise Payne on July 23-24 for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. Holding the meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the U.S. Pacific coast and near the birthplace of the ANZUS Treaty

The AUSMIN meeting held last month brought together the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defense Marise Payne. Its Indo-Pacific focus was unmistakable. Whereas the 2017 AUSMIN Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” but once and for the first time at AUSMIN, the 2018 Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” 11 times; with the “Asia-Pacific,” the previously dominant term of strategic reference, unmentioned.

Certainly other issues were noted in the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration; including Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, ensuring ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq, and continuing anti-Taliban support of Afghanistan. However, the main focus of the Joint Declaration was the Indo-Pacific where it “emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and “the significance of the Indo-Pacific to our shared future.” As such, the Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017. The Joint Declaration stressed a broad convergence, “our shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, which has diplomatic, security, and economic dimensions.”

Some uncontroversial socio-economic objectives were highlighted in the Joint Declaration for application in the Indo-Pacific: “the United States and Australia decided to collaborate to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases in the Indo-Pacific region,” and to “reinforce objectives of Australia’s Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific.”

Alongside such uncontroversial social initiatives were expressions of economic cooperation. With regard to the Pacific basin, the Joint Declaration highlighted that they “support closer cooperation to promote the security, stability, resilience, and development of Pacific Island countries”; and “highlighted the importance of strengthening regional information sharing, maritime security, and domain awareness.” This was a tacit response to China’s greater prominence in the Southern Pacific. Further economic cooperation was pinpointed:

“The Secretaries and Ministers committed to increased bilateral and multilateral cooperation on economic development in the Indo-Pacific, recognizing that security and prosperity are mutually reinforcing. Our two governments will work together, and with partners, to support principles-based and sustainable infrastructure development in the region, which will promote growth and stability.”

Though un-stated, this represented a response to China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative. Such responses had also been the focus of the “Trilateral Infrastructure Working Group” which brought together Japanese, Indian, and US officials in February 2018 to foster “increased connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.”

The AUSMIN meeting in July 2018 set out broad Indo-Pacific values. This echoed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept and strategy unveiled by Shinzo Abe in 2016 and adopted by Donald Trump at the APEC summit in November 2017, which has become the mantra in US strategic formulations. Hence the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration that:

“They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based […] The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”

This was an implicit critique of China, with AUSMIN mention of other “allies and partners” pointing to strategic geometry and potential constraint of China.

In the Joint Declaration, the “open” refers to concerns of a closed Maritime Silk Road push by China, and to the (SCS) being closed down by China achieving its “U-shaped line” claim and thereby making it a Chinese Lake. The focus on “free/democracy” refers to China’s non-democratic authoritarianism. The “rules-based order” refers to China’s rejection of the SCS rulings made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. The SCS was prominent elsewhere in the Joint Declaration; which stressed Australia-US concerns over Chinese “militarization of disputed features” and reiterated the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight.” This point raised the question of joint freedom of navigation operations there by the two allies – to consolidate established US unilateral naval deployments, and Australian unilateral aerial deployments. Given that bilateral Australian-UK freedom of navigation operations in the SCS are being mooted for 2019, this would be an obvious development in US-Australian defense cooperation.

The Joint Declaration “highlighted the importance of US-Australia defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” with the strategic value of the US Marine Rotational Force at Darwin and enhanced air cooperation both restressed and enhanced; together with further naval cooperation where “the principals also decided to integrate US force elements into Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.” Darwin’s importance continues to grow as a convenient jump point for deployment and operation further westwards to the Indian Ocean, further northwards to the SCS and further eastwards to the Pacific Ocean.

Wider defense cooperation was pinpointed in the Joint Declaration; “strengthening bilateral security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific nations through joint training and exercise opportunities.” As to who these like-minded Indo-Pacific nations were, “they welcomed the recent US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific in Singapore and reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen trilateral dialogue with Japan.”

The “trilateral dialogue with Japan” refers to the Australia-Japan-US (AJUS) strategic dialogue mechanism in operation since 2002; which has moved to increasingly significant air force and naval cooperation in the West Pacific and SCS, to China’s unease. The eighth AJUS ministerial meeting, due later in 2018, is expected to mark a formal shift to “Indo-Pacific” terms of reference, echoing the “Indo-Pacific” anchoring already seen in the fourth Australia-India-Japan (AIJ) trilateral, held on 21 July 2018.

The “US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific” refers to the Quad mechanism revived in November 2017. The Quad meeting in June 2018 stressed their common push “for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where all countries respect sovereignty, international law, including with respect to freedom of navigation and overflight;” based on “a common commitment, founded on shared democratic values and principles, to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” and to strengthen “maritime cooperation.”

The explicit message of the AUSMIN meeting was a strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. The implicit message of much of the Joint Declaration was that, despite their stated hopes that “both nations continue to place a high priority on constructive and beneficial engagement with China,” in reality tacit counter-measures were on show.