This interview first appeared in ASEAN Focus. The views are of the author(s).
With US President Donald Trump making his first sojourn to Asia for the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam and the ASEAN Summitry in the Philippines, Dhruva Jaishankar spoke to the ASEAN Focus to give his view of the US Administration’s policy leanings towards the region.
In this interview, he analyses the impact of Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia, as well as the Indo-Pacific concept that is beginning to define his Administration’s Asia policy.
Q: What is your understanding of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept as repackaged by the Trump administration?
A: The exact contours of this policy – including the military dimensions – are still taking shape, and will do so over the coming months. However, in terms of rhetoric, it draws upon Japan’s own, parallel approach for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” While the exact policies and scope are still to be fleshed out, there is a shared understanding of: (1) the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single strategic space in which all these countries have a stake, (2) an appreciation of the importance of the maritime domain for both security and trade, (3) an emphasis on the rule of law in governing this wide region, and (4) an understanding that India plays a vital role in the regional balance of power.
Q: Do you think there is an inherent disconnect between the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept and President Trump’s “America First” approach on trade?
A: The Trump Administration’s approach to trade and international economics is somewhat discordant in two ways. One is the obsessive focus on reducing trade deficits. The second discordant element is the unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which cedes space in setting the next generation of multilateral trade standards for the region.
Q: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific is meant to provide strong alternatives to China’s infrastructure financing in the region. What are the tools and resources available for the US and its partners to deliver on this?
A: The US has only a limited ability to play a competitive role in infrastructure financing in Asia. However, its partners bring other strengths to the table. Japan is the only country that can rival China in strategic infrastructure investment, and there is now palpable competition between China and Japan in this respect across Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. Together, the likes of the US, Japan, and India can establish norms and principles for sustainable infrastructure financing in the region.
Q: How would the Free and Open Indo-Pacific play out in security terms?
A: Across the Indo-Pacific, the US has unrivalled capabilities, including a network of military bases, treaty alliances, and important security partnerships. The United States’ challenge in recent years has been the will to employ these resources to preserve the status quo, as in the South China Sea, where China has successfully militarized much of the sea and airspace. That said, the US – for political, economic, and other reasons – is increasingly keen on sharing the burden, and this is where Japan, India, and Australia come in. The challenge will involve political will more than material capabilities.
Q: What would be the role of the revived Australia-India- Japan-US quadrilateral partnership (Quad) in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific? Could Quad 2.0 be more viable than Quad 1.0?
A: The Quad is not an alliance. It is merely a gathering of four democratic maritime powers, who have some convergent interests when it comes to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and the requisite capabilities to uphold that order. What has changed from its first meeting in 2007 to its latest this year are the circumstances. Rather than assuming greater responsibility with its rising power, China has become more authoritarian, opaque, mercantile, and revisionist. Furthermore, in all four countries elected governments attempted to reach accommodations with Beijing, but were spurned. This means that despite a continued willingness to engage China by all four parties, alternative mechanisms to uphold a rules-based order are being sought. For this reason, Quad 2.0 is probably more viable than its predecessor.
Q: The Quad 1.0 centered on security dialogue and military exercises. What is the possibility of the Quad 2.0 transforming itself into something that should be more economically oriented?
A: The exact purpose and agenda of the Quad in its present avatar will still have to be defined, although elements of the priorities of the four countries are reflected in their statements. Today, economics are increasingly intertwined with security. I expect we will initially see the four parties sharing views on regional developments, followed by better coordination, a gradual building of habits of cooperation and familiarity, some investment in capacity building, and – should it continue and progress – some contingency planning.
Q: India’s foreign policy has always been guarded around the principle of non-alignment. What made India become a more proactive partner in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific?
A: Non-alignment is long dead. That said, India sees itself as an emerging pole in the international order and therefore is keen on preserving its autonomy and flexibility of decision-making. It has also become a more vocal proponent and supporter of a liberal international order. Finally, India’s multi-faceted relationship with China – involving a long- standing border dispute, differences over regional security, a sizeable if imbalanced trade relationship, and some convergence on global governance – has deteriorated, largely as a result of China’s own evolution. For these reasons, Indian support for a free and open Indo-Pacific is a natural outcome
Q: How does the Free and Open Indo-Pacific dovetail with India’s Act East policy?
A: The Act East policy represents a change from an earlier Look East policy in three respects. First, Look East was primarily economic in nature, with India seeking investment, technology, and economic models from dynamic Asian economies. Act East is much more comprehensive and includes a strong security component, including greater capacity building, interoperability, and information sharing with Southeast and Northeast Asian powers. Two, the scope of Act East has expanded to cover the entire Indo-Pacific, beyond an earlier focus on Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and South Korea. Three, Act East has been more focused on end results rather than direction, which is a natural progression and also a sign of greater urgency.
The idea is that India must be fully integrated into Asia- Pacific institutions (which it is, barring APEC), should be more commercially integrated into regional value chains (which remains a work in progress), and become a net security provider within its capabilities. These objectives, and India’s overall evolution, dovetail nicely with the notion of a free and open Indo-Pacific, whether articulated by the US or by Japan.
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