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30 June 2017, Gateway House

East Asia, theatre of changing power dynamics

Hopes of a close partnership between the U.S. and India, as expressed at the Modi-Trump Summit, will have repercussions on East Asia. Will the region see peace or exacerbated conflict between China and all the nations opposed to its domination?

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies

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The Modi-Trump Summit in Washington on 26 June 2017 had the leaders projecting the U.S. and India as “democratic stalwarts in the Indo-Pacific Region”, stressing that a close partnership between the two nations was “central to peace and security in the region”. This is an apt moment to reflect on whether East Asia will be a region of peace and prosperity or a theatre of sharpened contestation between China, on the one hand, and all those nations opposed to a China-dominated East Asia, on the other.

The answer lies in the evolving pattern of relations between the four major powers—U.S., China, Japan and India—and their impact in the course of the last one year on others, such as ASEAN.

East Asia, the vast region stretching from India to Japan and Australia, was known for its stability and rapid economic growth until a few years ago. It flourished under America’s widely accepted hegemony for many decades. Then China’s unmistakable rise, marked by economic muscle and military heft, brought a fundamental change, with President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership building up the China moment.

Trump, first as a presidential candidate and then as the president, has contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty, even instability, in the region. Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra is driven by the impulse towards ultra nationalism, economic protectionism, and isolationism in strategic terms. It implies giving up the vision of America as the Number One power in the world. This caused immense anxiety in Japan, particularly as it heard calls for: a) more spending on its defence; and b) acquiring its own nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Abe was first off the mark: he met the president-elect and was also among the earliest visitors to the Trump White House. These interactions helped alleviate Japan’s concerns as Washington re-committed itself to Japan’s defence according to the existing arrangements within the alliance.

In end 2016-early 2017, China appeared to be a major target of Trump’s ire: it had a massive trade deficit with the U.S., and was condemned as ‘the currency manipulator’. In a major policy departure, the president-elect received a telephone call from the president of Taiwan. He even indicated that the ‘One China’ policy was negotiable. These early steps sent shock waves. Were the region and the world getting ready for new antagonism between the U.S as the established power, and China as the rising one?

All this changed quickly—after Xi Jinping and Trump had a successful summit at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017. Nimble Chinese diplomacy engineered Trump’s turn-around. China promised to work on reducing the trade deficit. It also pledged to restrain North Korea, which was busy firing missiles in the general direction of South Korea and Japan. The two major powers behaved as if the South China Sea (SCS) question, stirring up the region for the past five years, did not even exist!

As the U.S.-China entente gathered traction, the ASEAN countries seemed to read the changed writing on the wall: Obama’s ‘pivot’/‘rebalancing’ strategy to counter China’s influence in the region was over. America seemed ready to cede space to a Sino-centric Asia, especially as it sent a senior official to represent the U.S. administration at the OBOR Summit in Beijing in May 2017. The ASEAN countries increased their hedging tendency, yielding to the charms of a pro-Beijing government in Manila by agreeing to a framework agreement on the Code of Conduct on SCS, an issue that has remained unresolved for long. That this agreement, still under wraps, may be favourable to China is the impression prevailing in many circles.

It was against this backdrop that New Delhi thought fit to lower its expectations regarding the Trump-Modi Summit. The unstated anxiety was whether the new president fully realised the strategic significance of power equations and regional balance in East Asia and whether he was willing to let America play a stabilising role—without which its own global position might suffer irreparably. The outcome of the White House summit is welcome for it is the best that could have been achieved at this stage.

The India-U.S. joint statement identified several common objectives, one of which was “promoting stability across the Indo-Pacific region”. Depicting the U.S. and India as “responsible stewards” in the region, it reaffirmed commitment to a set of common principles, including respect for freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce, and called upon other nations in the region to adhere to them. Admittedly, the formulation is weaker than the joint statement of June 2016 and the joint vision statement of January 2015, but it sends a clear enough signal to China that it has been given no free pass. In what manner this commitment will be implemented in practice should be worth watching.

India and like-minded powers—Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia and South Korea—have their work cut out for them in the future. They need to deepen their strategic partnerships, besides continuing to strengthen their vital relations with the U.S. The goal should be to constrain China and also safeguard a regional balance as the only bulwark for stability, peace and prosperity in East Asia. Meanwhile, what is awaited is an authentic statement by President Trump on his East Asia policy.

Judging by the past year’s roller-coaster, several shifts and changes may be in store in the coming year—and they need to be monitored with care.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House and a former ambassador with extensive diplomatic experience in East Asia.

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