Will Trump follow Obama’s Asia-Pacific path?

By Diao Daming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/25 19:43:39

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits India and Pakistan this week before Donald Trump initiates his first trip as US president to Asia in early November. The new administration's stance on Asia-Pacific policy will be under the spotlight during the visit.

As a president who arrived in the White House with no substantial political or military experience, Trump was bound to undergo a longer learning period than predecessors, engendering a slow birth for his Asia-Pacific policy. In the past nine months, the Trump administration has restored a strong presence in the Middle East and may end up breaking with both former president Barack Obama's Middle East and Asia-Pacific strategies.

 In the announcement of Tillerson's visit, the White House mentioned the "Indo-Pacific" instead of "Asia-Pacific," seemingly a new signal.

During Obama's Asia-Pacific rebalance policy, Washington frequently quoted "Indo-Pacific" to refer to the giant strategic arc linking the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean. This word stresses the strategic connection between the two oceans and steps up India's role as the region's chief balancing power against China.

Now the Trump administration has repeatedly used "Indo-Pacific," probably to imply continuation of this policy. The Trump administration will keep stressing the concept and return to Obama's US-dominated global order based on rules so as to attach more strings to China.

India and the Indian Ocean are highly likely to be taken as effective supplements to America's Middle East policy by the Trump administration. Hardly able to manage both the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific at the same time, Trump will expand Obama's Asia-Pacific policy into an Indo-Pacific policy interacting with its Middle East agenda instead of just junking the whole strategy. The Indian Ocean region will become a key pivot for a new round of American strategic balancing in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, exactly the same sort of thing as the Obama administration was previously trying.

As a learner diplomat, Trump has displayed three character traits in his diplomatic policies: focus, continuation and contingency.

Firstly Trump focuses on topics he finds interesting and with which his team are familiar. He listens to American voters calling for action and makes campaign promises accordingly. This is best illustrated by his crackdown on the Islamic State in the Middle East, his support for Israel and his tough stance against Iran.

Secondly Trump lets other policies continue. This approach applies to issues he finds unengaging and with which his team are ill-acquainted. The US voter mostly pays no mind to Europe, for example. Trump thus talks tough on Europe, about sharing expenses and fighting terrorism. He then visited Europe three times to mitigate tension and keep all his allies on-side and the same policies as his predecessor continued largely unabated.

Thirdly, Trump handles contingencies. These are issues attached to strong domestic interests for which Trump and his team are ill-prepared, such as the Korean Peninsula. In this case, he reacts passively and avoids offering solutions.

The Trump administration's Asia-Pacific policy makes sense within this three-point framework. Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the US-South Korea Free Trade Area negotiations count as focal issues, whereas Asia-Pacific policy appears all about continuation.

If there are to be any changes, the Trump administration may stress the US presence in the region as the military holds a greater sway in the White House. An enhanced military presence does not necessarily mean war. More likely it means peripheral containment and deterrence.

Generally speaking, Trump's foreign agenda has a handful of new ideas, but it is far less subversive or uncertain than was once predicted. He has not yet made a single irreversible and disastrous diplomatic decision. As a Republican president, it was not beyond expectation for him to stress the Middle East and military clout, oppose climate change and "de-Obamanize" the US.

Meanwhile, his diplomatic policies reflect a continuation of the traditional approach to old issues. While stressing the traditional Republican stance in the Middle East, he is reluctant to outright deny an Asia-Pacific rebalance. While highlighting "America First" with withdrawals, he stresses the fundamental role of his allies. It's a bubbling mixture of exotic diplomatic ideas drawn from across American history. Maybe it is still too early to tell, but this mixture looks more like a series of passive reactions to a changing world that lack much by way of ulterior motives or a coherent strategy.

The author is an associate professor of the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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