President-elect Donald Trump has smashed protocol and advocated the unthinkable. Humphrey Hawksley argues that the region should seize the opportunity being created.
The current Asian security structure, run by the United States since the end of the Second World War, is about to face one of its biggest tests under the presidency of Donald Trump. China will be centre stage, and the roles played by the key regional powers, India and Japan, will be crucial.
During his campaign, President-elect Trump made clear his scepticism concerning America’s policy towards China, going as far as opening up the option of Japan and South Korea becoming nuclear-armed powers. After winning, he followed that by homing in, laser-like, on China’s most sensitive national issue, the status of the breakaway province of Taiwan.
He broke 40 years of diplomatic protocol by speaking directly to the Taiwanese leader, Tsai Ing-wen, and went on to question the ‘One China’ policy which is the bedrock of the Sino-US relationship. China hit back by confiscating an American underwater surveillance drone. To the astonishment of intelligence communities, in the midst of negotiations for the drone’s return – which were successful – Trump used Twitter to say that America did not want it back. Although the drone itself is available on the open market, it almost certainly contained embedded classified data and technology that would be useful to China.
Trump’s style has shaken both Chinese and American officials who have been dealing with each other for decades on sensitive issues. They make no secret that, through their prism of quiet, steady diplomacy, they view Trump as dangerous and unpredictable.
From this, two issues emerge. The first is how much America’s institutions can or should rein in the new president if he embarks upon a catastrophic path or, for that matter, how much damage control these officials can implement through their own informal dealings with each other. The second is whether Trump is, in fact, delivering a long overdue shake-up to an outdated international order bereft of new ideas.
The spectre of a rising China, confrontation scenarios over Taiwan and the growing tension in the South China Sea are challenges that have been around for decades. Why then, have they not been met more skilfully, and why is the Asia-Pacific, that region of robust, futuristic confidence, suddenly being talked about as the next arena for a new cold (or even hot) war?
The 2011 initiative to ‘pivot’ American focus towards the Asia-Pacific was the brainchild of Trump’s presidential rival, Hillary Clinton. Although it dealt with far more than just an increased military presence, the manner in which it was presented, with few understanding its premise, was partly blamed for setting the world’s two biggest economies on what appears to be a collision course. Since then, China has speeded up its blue water navy expansion and the construction of island outposts in disputed waters of the South China. Trump describes them as a ‘massive military complex’.
The US, meanwhile, has worked hard to bolster its tapestry of Asian alliances, designed to hold an aggressive China in check. It now has strategic alliances with many governments in East, South East and South Asia, including India, and defence agreements with South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.
The first stitches in this tapestry date back to the 1945 defeat and occupation of Japan. By 1952, the US had moulded Japan into an independent Asian democracy, and the military alliance between the two countries became the foundation of American regional dominance. Despite the 1953 Korean War stalemate and its 1975 defeat in Vietnam, the US has remained pre-eminent, overseeing Asia-Pacific economic growth and mentoring various countries towards becoming fully-blown pro-Western market democracies. The results have been mixed. In Taiwan and South Korea , it has worked; less so in Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere. Myanmar remains an embryonic work in progress.
While Africa, the Middle East and Latin America stumbled, the Asia-Pacific region became the home of economic tigers, miracle growth and city skylines that looked as if they had been stripped from science fiction films. Ironically, the biggest beneficiary of the US Asia policy has been China. During this period, a society broken by civil unrest and famine has become the autocratic success story it is today. Flashpoints such as Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, although always present, faded in the glare of massive economic gains. The South China Sea dispute was barely mentioned.
That situation is no more. Trump’s presidency coincides with a new period for the Asia-Pacific in which, seen from a historical perspective, the status quo power is coming face-to-face with a determined rising power. The precedent of the past century, with how Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia were handled in the 1930s, has not been good. Failures in these two separate theatres combined to create the Second World War.
Yet, history never repeats itself exactly. This time, the US has a staunch ally, Japan, in handling China’s rise, while the staunchly non-aligned India is paradoxically becoming a growing presence within the Asia-Pacific security network. India’s size, regional muscle and dogged independence could supply checks and balances against Trump’s tendency towards sharp and inflammatory talk which, after the inauguration could well turn into policy.
The current cycle of US-India friendship began under the presidency of George W Bush, who wanted to end India’s status as a nuclear-weapons renegade and bring it into the international fold. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has built on this with his overtly pro-American foreign policy, which has now been extended to a substantive military and strategic alliance.
India has bought more than $10 billion worth of military equipment from the US in the past decade, and the two governments have signed a series of agreements, including on cyber security and port logistics, whereby American warplanes and naval ships can use India’s bases and ports on a case-by-case basis.
Of equal importance, however, is India’s ‘Act East’ policy, whereby Delhi has reached out to smaller south-east Asian governments. These countries fear being forced once again to choose between the vested interests of competing superpowers, as during the Cold War. Given their economic entwinement with China and security reliance of America, such a choice would now be unworkable.
Vietnam, one of the countries feeling most threatened by China, has taken up India’s offer to train pilots and sailors on its newly-acquired, Russian-made fighter planes and submarines. Indian investment into Vietnam, together with Cambodia, Burma and Laos — three of the poorest South East Asian countries most vulnerable to Chinese control — has multiplied 25 times since 2000, from $460 million to more than $12 billion now. India has so far made joint statements on the South China Sea dispute with Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia as well as with the US.
None of this brings India into the arc of being a direct US proxy frontline force against China, nor should it want to be. Instead, India could take on a more subtle, and probably far more effective, role. From its long-held position of non-alignment, India has unique experience and insight in dealing with governments with which the US is likely to find itself at odds, particularly Russia, Iran and North Korea. India’s issues with China are well chronicled, but they differ from America’s. Here too it can offer a fresh perspective.
At stake is far more than the confined areas of the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits, because this new theatre of rivalry runs seamlessly from the Pacific through to the Indian Ocean, and encompasses most of the world’s population and wealth. India and Japan are the two powers that lie at either end of this vast area. If Trump does take on China with even half the vigour of his own rhetoric, he will need their support.
Trump’s presidency will smash protocol and advocate the unthinkable. This will give Asia an opening to do the same.