Recent brinkmanship between the United States and Iran is the latest indication of Washington’s distraction from great power competition with Beijing. The trouble in the Middle East plus impeachment proceedings in Washington have sidetracked Trump administration’s policies in the Indo-Pacific region.
While the Trump administration has signalled its commitment to an Asia-first foreign policy with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision and the focus on great power competition with China, this has always coexisted amid priorities in other parts of the world such as combating hostile regimes like Iran and Venezuela.
General Suleimani’s death not only means an escalation in U.S.-Iran tensions but may also affect its ties with key Asian partners. There have past instances where Washington diverged from Asia and almost turned against key allies like Japan and India.
In order to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) the Trump administration passed the BUILD Act in October 2018. It aims to compete with the BRI by creating a new finance corporation with a significantly expanded lending capacity of US$60 billion to mobilise US private investment in developing countries.
In the South China Sea, Washington has regularised the freedom of navigation approach to counter China’s expansive maritime claims and signal US resolve in the region. US officials have worked hard to address regional misgivings — from wariness of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States, to grumblings from ASEAN.
The principal problem with the Trump administration’s policies is Donald Trump himself. The American President continues to blast allies and partners for what he sees as unfair trade practices. He also continues to send mixed signals to Beijing on various issues, including the ongoing trade war, protests in Hong Kong and the confinement of nearly a million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Let alone defending US values of human rights and democracy, he has dismissed China’s appalling abuse of citizens and identified with the strongman style of Chinese premier Xi Jinping, whom he describes as a friend.
The White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy posits that China and Russia threaten American interests and security abroad. But Trump’s behaviour and words clearly contradict his administration’s stated policies.
Trump has surrendered important ground to Russia in Syria and continues to disparage Ukraine in its struggle for independence following the invasion by Moscow’s security forces. The events that have unfolded in Iran may lend further strategic advantage to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the Middle East.
In November last year, the Trump administration’s demand for Japan to pay four times and South Korea pay five times of what they currently pay to host US forces on their territory which caused bitter resentment in Tokyo and Seoul.
The Trump administration’s absence at important Southeast Asian summits clearly shows it’s disinterest despite US officials describing it as a ‘priority theatre’. Trump declined to attend East Asia Summit for the second year in a row which is the foremost regional forum for Southeast Asian countries, China, Japan, the United States and other ASEAN partners.
When the United States sent Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to represent the Trump administration at the US–ASEAN Summit in November 2019, only three of ten ASEAN leaders attended the meeting with O’Brien.
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper followed up with a regional tour of South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Manila, where Washington has lost influence since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, the Secretary agreed to a review of the US–Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which dates back to 1951, in a bid to reaffirm US credibility.
In Vietnam, Secretary Esper announced that the United States would transfer another Coast Guard cutter to the country. Hanoi has welcomed increased security ties with Washington in light of recent aggression from China in waters they claim in the South China Sea. But Vietnam may be one of the only remaining bright spot for the Trump administration’s Asia policy.
However, the tension between the US with its vast global interests, including in the Middle East, and the need to focus more on Asia is not unique to the Trump administration. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations dealt with a similar dilemma.
A tumultuous election year awaits the US President as he faces impeachment proceedings alongside the aforementioned challenges. Given these circumstances, it’s not hard to guess that Indo- Pacific is not going to be his administration’s top most priority. One key question that remains is how the Trump administration’s approach to Asia would shape up within its wider foreign policy amid broader potentially unforeseen crises and challenges.
OpEd By Kiran Gujar. Views Personel