Over the summer of 2017, all eyes have been on the Northern Tier of Asia: North Korean relations with the United States, Sino-US relations and the Korean Peninsula, US-ROK relations, and Japan as a factor in these cases with Russia occasionally entering the picture. The Trump effect further south in Asia has drawn much less attention. In this collection of four articles, we cross Asia’s Southern Tier, ranging from Australia to ASEAN to India, while also exploring Japanese views of Southeast Asia. This is a transitional period after a major shift in US leadership and in light of acceleration of Chinese involvement across this region. While it is early to conclude clearly how this transition will unfold—given the inconclusive aftermath of the May Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in China and the troubled atmosphere in US politics and policymaking—it is important to keep our eyes looking southward as an arena of potential conflict over the South China Sea, disputed border between China and India, Sino-US/Japan competition, and uncertainty over ASEAN Centrality.
August has defined the presidency of Trump more abruptly and sharply than most expected. The meaning of his slogan “America First” is much clearer. On security, do Asians need to worry about abandonment by an isolationist or entrapment by a man hungry to exert the power of his office? Trump’s doubling down on the war in Afghanistan with a nod to India’s role and a rebuff to Pakistan’s complicity in the deaths of Americans suggests entrapment, not too dissimilar from Obama’s approach but with a willingness to use triumphant language and challenge ambivalent partners at real cost to the stability of the region. On economic relations with China—which Southeast Asian states and Australia view as having far-reaching impact on them—secondary sanctions on Chinese firms supporting North Korea and the spillover of Trump’s warning against NAFTA and KORUS FTA, trigger further concern since US abandonment of TPP in January. Sino-US relations, after months of vacillation, are on a downward spiral. Meanwhile, Trump’s chaotic and disconcerting effect on US politics leaves the entire process of decision-making in Washington in turmoil, clouding its foreign policy.
Barack Obama’s policies in the Southern Tier of Asia appear better in retrospect. Japanese media (see the Country Report: Japan of this issue), after long-criticizing him for his weak posture, in particular his lack of clarity on the South China Sea disputes and inattention to freedom of navigation operations, have warmed to his legacy. The loss of TPP is bemoaned, as is the absence of a strategic blueprint for what Washington is seeking, amid increasing concerns about the incoherence of messages coming from different officials in Washington. Rex Tillerson’s role at the ARF meetings in August was assessed quite negatively as too unobtrusive and preoccupied with North Korea without much visibility seeking to counter the very lively presence of China’s foreign minister Wang Yi in addressing Southeast Asian matters. Some Japanese sources pressed for Japan to do more to try to fill the vacuum, for instance through TPP-11 talks, but there was widespread recognition that Japan cannot achieve much without strong US leadership in this corner of Asia.
Three frameworks gained traction among those attentive to countering moves by China to capitalize on the closest trade relations and massive infrastructure plans to assert itself as the dominant power in the Southern Tier. This “unbalanced” outcome—contrary to ASEAN’s pursuit of great power equilibrium—looms large in warnings coming from many sides. Declining US presence is a concern far more pronounced in Asia’s Southern Tier than in its Northern counterpart, even overshadowing talk of a rising Chinese presence in some circles.
One framework countering China’s rise is what Japan’s Aso Taro a decade ago called the “arc of freedom and democracy.” This claim that universal values, the rule of law, and international norms draw together the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and much of Southeast Asia was popular in the Obama era. Yet, that rhetoric has been eclipsed in the Trump period, fueled too by backtracking in Southeast Asia, as in Thailand and the Philippines. Some assert that the ASEAN Way is more compatible with China’s outlook on values than this once highlighted framework. Japanese claims that it persists as the champion of this values-based approach or narrow appeals that “freedom of navigation” actions could suffice to uphold this broader values framework lack sufficient credibility.
The second framework was encapsulated in TPP, representing the gold standard in economic governance. Including four countries of Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, TPP was showcased as the pathway to focus the region on economic principles capable of steering China’s behavior onto a more acceptable course. In its absence, some believe that Chinese-led regionalism for setting the economic rules is inevitable. As RCEP talks continue, targeting completion in 2018, and BRI begins to take clearer shape along with the AIIB, many are still seeking to find a framework that will not let China have its ways in the region’s economy.
The third is a framework for security, which some refer to as a quadrangle including the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, while others add Singapore and various defense partners in Southeast Asia to the mix. India’s interest in such coordination is growing, as its sense of threat from China has deepened. Japan is trying to fill the void left by US default on trade multilateralism, while seeking to boost defense ties with other regional partners in cooperation with the United States. Should China make a flagrantly aggressive move, as toward India or in the South China Sea, the virtual “NATO of the East” might take a more concrete form. Trump’s August 21 speech on Afghanistan is an indication of an active US security posture, welcomed by India and with possible ramifications for US policy further east in Asia. Yet, this is just the first sign of an as yet unstated strategy.
The Trump era started in a troubling way for many with contentious telephone calls with Turnbull of Australia and with Duterte of the Philippines, following the renunciation of TPP. India appeared to b a marginal interest. Yet, ties with Australia proved too deep to be shaken so easily, Trump’s “generals” were soon reassuring Southeast Asian states, as on the South China Sea issue, and Modi was already forging a solid foundation with the United States, which was bound to persist given deteriorating relations with China. A floor was put under Trump’s impact. In August, on that foundation and against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China, as on the border with India and in interference with domestic affairs of other states on matters affecting China, the pendulum swung to new US assertiveness.
Darren Lim and Victor Ferguson observe that Australian foreign policy has long been underpinned by three broad objectives: commitment to the US alliance, active regional engagement in Asia, and promotion of and participation within the global rules-based order. Yet, when asking about Trump’s impact, they point to new factors raising the risks of abandonment and entrapment. Trump’s foreign policy statements have generated some anxiety amongst Australian policymakers. His avowed preferences for unilateralism and nationalism over multilateralism and internationalism raise the specter of what has been described as “isolationism on speed.” Unlike Japan or NATO, Australia has not been explicitly called out by the president; however, many recalled when Richard Armitage noted that Canberra was at risk of becoming a “free-rider” when its defense spending was cut to 1.6 per cent of GDP by the Rudd-Gillard governments of 2007-2013. Given that defense spending is set at 2 percent for the next decade, Australian leaders are confident that “we pull our weight.” Yet, fears of abandonment may linger because some view the United States under Trump as a partner of diminished credibility. For the first time since the alliance was formed, Canberra must deal with an administration whose commitment to shared values, which have historically been “the building blocks of trust,” may not be absolute, in the absence of a US president with a clear commitment to upholding the liberal, rules-based international order and the US place in leading it. Australia also fears entrapment, seeing a now higher risk of Trump pursuing escalatory policies vis-à-vis China and North Korea. This concern was rising, as fear of isolationism was fading. With a mixture of fears of both abandonment and entrapment, the question becomes whether and how Canberra can mitigate the risks, Lim and Ferguson ask.
The option of scaling back alliance cooperation and forging a more independent foreign policy has been advocated by figures across Australia’s political and academic landscape, but pulling up anchor at a time when the waters are more turbulent than ever would have significant downsides for Australia. The option of embracing a Trumpian America more tightly, bearing gifts and indulging personal idiosyncrasies, as Abe appeared to do, seems unlikely given the Canberra establishment’s palpable distaste for Trump. Thus, they expect Australia to take a middle ground, muddling through and doing its utmost to avoid making a clear choice during Trump’s presidency—the least unappealing strategic play and made easier by positive development among those below the head of state and by deep operational ties.
Lim and Ferguson add detail to this overview. Despite an expectation that Trump will request Australia to join US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, Australia did not participate in the first two operations in May and July. One cannot discount the possibility that distaste for Trump reduced enthusiasm for the risk that FONOPs present. Meanwhile, closer ties with China are complicated by a variety of scandals in the past 12 months regarding allegations of espionage. In addition to the obstacles posed by the values gap, Australia is concerned about the direction China’s regional leadership is taking in certain security-related areas. The Australian public is increasingly taking note of China’s widely reported assertiveness. They viewed Chinese efforts to use economic coercion to deter South Korea from deploying US missile defense systems as a warning to all of the potential costs of losing economic ties with Beijing. In addition, Australian government officials expressed shock at the decision of a Chinese delegation to loudly protest the attendance of a Taiwanese delegation at an international conference on conflict diamonds hosted in Perth. As China continues to provide much needed infrastructure and industry investment in Australia’s northern regions, some commentators increasingly suspect that Canberra might be pulled into the gravitational orbit of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Sino-US polarization, however, may make this option harder and leave the middle road position less tenable.
Australia has continued to enhance its bilateral and multilateral cooperation with major regional partners including India, Japan, and core ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Singapore. Yet it is difficult to say that such initiatives would have occurred but for Trump, and ties have not advanced far. They have been overshadowed by India’s reluctance to allow Australian participation in the India-Japan-US Malabar naval exercise. Similarly, rather than any reinvigoration, the lack of substantive announcements made at the 2017 Australia-Japan leaders summit led some to describe it as indicating “a plateau in … strategic cooperation.” So far, Australia has not veered substantially off its course.
Concern in Australia is growing that global order, led and sustained by the United States for the past 70 years, will erode under a US president who appears to misunderstand or simply reject the logic of many of his nation’s international commitments. Trump is acting upon beliefs that threaten to undermine the rules-based order, the authors warn. His deeply idiosyncratic personality and revisionist approach to foreign policy are raising new and large question marks about not only the US-Australia alliance, but indeed the way in which Australia engages its regional neighbors and demonstrates its commitment to the international rules and institutions that underpin the global rules-based order. This has brought Australia’s leaders that much closer to the types of choices that their country has assiduously avoided.
Yet, personalities aside, the fundamental interests of both the United States and Australia remain closely aligned, and Canberra continues to accrue significant benefits from the alliance. If Australia remains in the unenviable position of navigating increased fears of bothabandonment and entrapment under Trump, then strategies of distancing or embracing are both likely to remain unacceptably costly and unpalatable.
For Southeast Asia, the halcyon days of the Obama “pivot” are over, Joseph Liow states. Trump reversed a host of Obama-era policies, including encouragement of international free trade, support for regional allies, and commitment to multilateralism, thereby casting doubt over American global leadership and its reliability as an ally. While elements of policy continuity can be discerned, the absence of a clear engagement strategy and the risk of distraction contrive to cause concern for the uncertainties and unpredictability that continues to characterize this administration. This state of affairs has hastened introspection on the part of regional states as to the need to recalibrate their strategic options. The positions articulated by Trump on the campaign trail prompted concern that the new government planned to reduce attention to Southeast Asia even as it reassessed its commitment to Asian allies, while it appeared intent on turning its back on the trade liberalization agenda long the mainstay of regional economic integration. There was also apprehension that the Trump administration might use the South China Sea as leverage in its dealings with China, perhaps in return for greater pressure on North Korea over missile tests and denuclearization. Trump seemed prepared to engage in a trade war with China too, even as the American withdrawal was cast as nothing short of ceding crucial economic initiative to China, which was already the number one trading partner with all countries in the region. Such uncertainty has plagued trust in US leadership.
After an initial flurry of foreign policy activity directed at Northeast Asia, engagement with Southeast Asia was gradually ramped up. Mike Pence visited Jakarta in April, pushing Southeast Asia up on Trump’s agenda. He committed Trump to visit the region in November for the East Asia Summit, the US-ASEAN summit (both in the Philippines), and the APEC summit (in Vietnam). Tillerson hosted ASEAN foreign ministers in DC on May 4, an opportunity to publicly request from ASEAN a firmer stand on North Korea even as he reiterated the US position in support of freedom of navigation and in opposition to the rising conflict in the South China Sea. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Washington’s longstanding commitment to the security of the region, including greater engagement with ASEAN, was reinforced. Security policy towards East Asia now appears more illustrative of continuity than disruption. Fears of abandonment receded by August.
Tillerson’s visit to the region in August sought to accomplish four objectives: to demonstrate the US commitment to the Asia Pacific region; to advance key security priorities in multilateral fora that are offered through ASEAN; to strengthen alliances and partnerships; and to underscore a commitment to a rules-based approach in the region. Yet, anxiety still remains in the region regarding the US role. It derives from the absence of a strategy to guide how the present administration has thus far handled issues of consequence. There is talk of a distracted power struggling to think or act strategically on global affairs. This was evident in how discussions on the US role in regional affairs tended to center myopically on one thing: FONOPS in the South China Sea. While a US naval presence is imperative for the stability and security in the region, and FONOPS are an important reminder of this presence, the absence of a strategic approach not only diluted the scope of American commitment, but also create, for some, the impression that the United States is just as culpable for the militarization of the South China Sea. Fears of entrapment have been thus increasing.
The inconsistency and unpredictability of Trump’s approach to China has been a source of anxiety with detrimental effects in a region, for which not only stable Sino-US diplomatic relations, but also a Chinese economy that is growing and an American economy that is integrated into the its trade and production networks, set the fundamental conditions for growth and prosperity. In this context, Liow sees recalibration with greater diplomatic, economic, and strategic activity between Southeast Asian states and other extra-regional powers, as well as in how it lends greater urgency to the cause of ASEAN unity and cohesion. ASEAN centrality signals the attempt of Southeast Asian states to manage the changing distribution of power and regional balance so as to create strategic latitude and autonomy while minimizing the prospects of the region being overwhelmed by great power politics. The uncertainty caused by the challenges that bedevil American approaches to Southeast Asia has doubtlessly injected greater urgency to the cause of ASEAN centrality. If deepening and diversifying regional engagement efforts with major extra-regional powers form one side of the coin, then internal unity and cohesion among Southeast Asian states must surely be the other. Trump’s impact may suggest greater urgency to cooperating more closely together, but the forces of divergence have gained so much momentum and its causes have penetrated so deeply that the absence of a clearer US regional strategy and a more engaged leadership only intensifies those divisions. This was earlier seen in Malaysia and the Philippines, hitherto steadfast Western allies, gravitating closer to China in recent years, drawn to the benefits Chinese friendship can bring. The ability of China to flex its economic muscle to achieve its interests may best be exemplified in Cambodia. Liow sees urgency for US leadership.
Donald Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office has not buffeted US-India ties to the same extent as it has American relations with other key powers, Daniel Twining concludes. For nearly two decades US-India ties have grown cumulatively deeper despite repeated changes of government on both sides, leading to some assurance in Washington and New Delhi that a relationship that started from a low base is institutionalized enough to withstand personality changes at the leadership level. Further, external drivers have only grown stronger over time. The more nationalist-populist bent of the Modi government meant that the Indian political class saw less that was novel in Trump’s ascendancy than did more liberal governments in allied nations in Europe and elsewhere. His tough campaign talk on China and terrorism also gave hope to Indian leaders.
Twining looks separately at Afghanistan/Pakistan, China, and Southeast Asia. India has welcomed Trump’s renewed commitment to the war in Afghanistan and to signs of a tougher stance toward Pakistan, both of which were articulated in Trump’s August 21 address. Washington’s approach to Islamabad has recently grown firmer: the United States withheld $50 million in military assistance in 2017 on the grounds that the president could not certify to Congress that the Pakistan Army was not supporting the Haqqani Network. Yet, Twining observes, Pakistani leaders are emboldened by the strong economic, military, and diplomatic support they are receiving from China, which has pledged more than $60 billion to construct the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Conditions for closer Indo-US relations exist in South Asia, in light of these ongoing developments.
A deterioration in China-India relations, which the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in India’s lower house of parliament recently called “the worst in 40 years,” is fortuitous for Trump’s ties to India. Concern over unchecked Chinese power in Asia is the dominant strategic convergence between the United States and India, we are told. Because of its concern about CPEC in particular, India boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit held in China in May 2017 and attended by dozens of world leaders. Its officials see BRI as a bold Chinese scheme to penetrate South Asia and encircle India, both on land and at sea. It shares with Washington and Tokyo the strategic interest to prevent China from turning its economic power into geopolitical preeminence in a region of central importance to the global economy, Twining concludes in taking a triangular approach.
In the summer of 2017, Chinese forces began the roadwork in a disputed region at the tri-junction of Bhutan, China, and Nepal, adjacent to India’s sensitive northeastern region. India moved troops through Nepal to block the Chinese infringement, leading to an armed standoff. Any hot India-China conflict would be an unprecedented test of the US-India strategic relationship and for New Delhi’s vaunted policy of “strategic autonomy,” which has precluded a more formal alliance-type partnership with the United States. Indian officials, already unnerved by China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, hoped for US support in the event the conflict intensified, Twining argues.
For the first time in the modern period, India now boasts the national capabilities and the political will to operate as a Southeast and East Asian power. The timing is propitious for India to pursue alliance options in order to countervail China’s capabilities, effectively abandoning the old template of “non-alignment.” For instance, India is building a quasi-alliance relationship with Japan, and its ties to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian powers give it a particular interest in the continued right of free passage in the South China Sea. India’s increasingly competitive relationship with Beijing means New Delhi is likely to be more sympathetic to American efforts to limit China’s ability to assert hegemony over its region, and that there is much Washington and New Delhi can do together to prevent China from controlling the maritime balance of power, including in the eastern Indian Ocean. Some of the most promising implications of India’s Act East policy for American interests relate to how they dovetail with key US strategic priorities, Twining observes.
Just as the parallels between BRI and Act East are compelling—China is moving west as India is pushing out to its east—so too are those between the more robust approach India has developed toward its East Asia policy over the past five years and the US rebalance to Asia over the same period. The US pivot and Act East are conjoined in a number of ways. Strategic convergences between the United States and India—on stabilizing Afghanistan, ending Pakistan’s support for terrorism, balancing Chinese power, and sustaining open Indo-Pacific commons within a regional order that is multipolar rather than Sinocentric—suggest more continuity than change in bilateral ties under Trump and Modi. Yet, social divisions within India and a muddling of the reform agenda could make it a less attractive destination for US trade, investment, and technology partnerships that could have a transformative impact on India’s modernization trajectory. While India may be hesitant in light of uncertainty over the Trump administration’s own commitment to the Asia-Pacific rebalance, close strategic ties, India’s extraordinary potential, and a common outlook on managing the Asian balance of power are likely to move bilateral ties to new levels of cooperation between democracies. This is an indication that the Southern Tier of Asia is worth close attention.
Japan and the Southern Tier
Japan under Abe has been actively seeking to strengthen its relations with the countries in Southeast Asia, Australia, and India, explains Yuki Tatsumi, who adds that as Trump has altered the contours of US foreign policy, it is important to reflect on how these initiatives have fared in judging Abe’s legacy and assessing regional dynamics. She finds that a notable shift in Japan’s policy toward Southeast Asia began from 2000, as Japan actively engaged with it in both economic and political/military areas. Its 2013 National Security Strategy noted that the region’s economic potential and its strategic location critical for Japan’s sea lines of communication requires it to “further deepen and develop cooperative relations.” Japan considers Southeast Asia an important partner to maintain a liberal international order and capacity-building, including security assistance, accelerated when it revised its ODA Charter in February 2015 to fund the transfer of defense equipment under the mantra of “strategic use of ODA.” This makes it easier for countries to develop their own maritime security capabilities, including the transfer of coast guard and JSDF used equipment. Japan held a 2+2 meeting among foreign and defense ministers of Indonesia in 2015, and signed a bilateral agreement for defense equipment transfer and cooperation with the Philippines in 2016. Rapid expansion of engagement, especially in the realm of maritime security, has continued in 2017. The motive behind Japan’s recent moves is an attempt to hedge against China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region.
If the sea lines of communication were disrupted in this region, it would inflict major damage not only on Japan’s national security, but also on its economy. If Japan is serious about doing its part in ensuring a stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific region that is based on the existing international order and values such as rule of law, freedom of passage (maritime and airspace), and refraining from changing the status quo by force, it needs partners beyond the United States to ensure such an environment. As such, since the inauguration of the Trump administration, Japan seems to be doubling down on its effort to strengthen its relations with Southeast Asia, India, and Australia. The most noticeable trend is Japan’s move toward cooperation is in security. From capacity-building, provision of assistance in HA/DR, to transfer of its defense technology and equipment, Japan has elevated its interest in connecting with these areas, Tatsumi states.
Japan regards Australia as “an important regional partner that shares not only universal values but also strategic interests with Japan.” Enhancement of US-Japan-Australia trilateral relations–the most robust “minilateral” security cooperative relationship in the Asia-Pacific region—has been a shared goal of Japan and Australia. Japan as well as Australia regards US-Japan-Australia security cooperation as a framework to ensure US engagement in the region. In fact, when Abe met with Turnbull in January 2017 on the eve of the Trump inauguration, they confirmed that implementation of TPP is the priority for their respective countries. They confirmed too that their country’s respective alliances with the United States are “the cornerstones of Australia and Japan’s peace and security, and underpin regional stability and prosperity,” before their April 2017, 2+2 talks.
Japan considers India geopolitically important given its location. With its potential as a market as well as a place for human resources, it seeks to strengthen ties in economic as well as political-military areas, especially in maritime security. Institutionalization of defense relations continues, with an agreement for defense equipment and technology cooperation and a general security of military intelligence agreement (GSOMIA) in 2015. Abe met Modi most recently in July 2017 on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The two agreed to buttress “a new era in Japan-India relations” by leveraging the opportunity to cooperate on a wide range of policy issues from economics to defense relations.
Foreign Minister Kono Taro in the Philippines in August held bilateral foreign ministers’ meeting with counterparts from the Philippines and Indonesia (as well as being part of a sharp exchange with China’s foreign minister). In the former, there was agreement on strengthening the relationship. In the latter, agreement was reached on enhancing their strategic partnership and on consultations of accelerated defense equipment transfers.
Trump’s decisions to withdraw from multinational agreements critical in shaping the international environment for the future, such as TPP and the Paris Climate Accord, are a major blow for Japan, which has advocated for these multinational frameworks. There is a strong sense that the TPP is not just another multilateral trade pact, but rather, it aligns with Japan’s strategic interest to preserve an open, fair, and free multilateral trade framework and to ensure US economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Enhancing security ties with US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region is meant to ensure that the existing international order can be upheld without depending solely on the US presence in the region. Pursuit of TPP-11 is also targeted at forging a regional order.
US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region has at times looked uncertain under the Trump administration. In addition, the fall in US “soft power” is a worrisome trend for Japan, whose foreign policy principles are anchored in upholding a liberal international order, in creating which the United States played a central role after World War II. With the Trump administration resorting to “tit-for-tat” transactional diplomacy with very little regard for the historical responsibility of the United States as a security guarantor for the post-WWII liberal international order, Japan is faced with engaging its regional partners, so that such relationships will last either with or without a predominant US presence in the region. Yet, US abandonment suddenly appears less likely than entrapment, which is not easy for Japan either, given its exposure to North Korea and to China’s economic ties.
Japan will need to frame its policies in a context that is not solely about “countering China” in order to make its approaches sustainable, argues Tatsumi. Australia, India, and the countries in Southeast Asia all have their own unique relationships with China, particularly in trade and investment. Despite some wariness with China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea, for example, most countries do not want to directly confront China. Therefore, if Japan’s attempts to engage them continue to be presented as “countering China,” success is in doubt. The Trump effect appears to leave countries with less room to maneuver, encouraging Japan to be more assertive, even if others hesitate.