US President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

As US President Donald Trump’s wraps up his 13-day Asia tour, questions are already being asked why he repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific,” rather than the more conventional “Asia-Pacific”, in his public comments.

America’s leader used the term several times in Japan and South Korea, and in Vietnam said he was honored to be visiting the “heart of the Indo-Pacific.”

The answer lies in what happened shortly after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Manila on Sunday. On the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, senior officials from America, Japan, India and Australia met for quadrilateral talks, indication that the disbanded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue may be resurrected.

India’s External Affairs Ministry said in a statement afterwards that the four nations “agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.”

The “Indo-Pacific” is a pithy slogan to describe the vision of what policymakers once called the “Quadrilateral,” or “Quad”, an alliance between the four democracies designed to build a free, open and peaceful region.

US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a joint press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House. Photo: AFP/Nicholas Kamm

A statement by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said that at the meeting officials discussed “upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight.”

Although the statement didn’t mention China specifically, most analysts interpreted this as coded language against Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

Shinzo Abe, during his first term as Japan’s Prime Minister, delivered a speech in 2007 to India’s Parliament entitled the “Confluence of the Two Seas.” He called for a “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans that would lead to an “arc of freedom and prosperity” for “broader Asia.”

That same year, the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was held between the four nations. But it was disbanded in 2008 when Australia’s new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, pulled out reportedly under Chinese pressure.

Ever since, analysts note that the four nations have strengthened ties with one another, while refraining from any formal alliance. This week’s meeting, however, might be a turning point.

Significantly, the concept of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ alliance is not a policy designed in Washington. Indeed, unlike Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, Trump now appears to be following the guidance of America’s Asian partners rather than setting the agenda himself.

US aircraft carrier US Nimitz during the Malabar joint naval exercise in July in the Indian Ocean. Photo: AFP/US Navy/Cole Schroeder

Japanese leader Abe has been the Quad’s leading proponent. When he returned as prime minister in 2012, on his second day in office he penned an article calling for the development of “Asia’s democratic security diamond.”

Trump’s repetition of “Indo-Pacific” might indicate the White House is now behind Abe’s goal. Analysts agree that it denotes three important contrasts to the more conventional “Asia-Pacific.”

First, by referring to the two oceans it prioritizes maritime concerns, including China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. The four nations have long opposed China’s militarization of the contested maritime area, calling for Beijing to respect a rule-based order, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and allow for full freedom of navigation.

But the Indo-Pacific also highlights China’s naval expansion in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese navy engaged in a live-fire military exercise there in August to prepare for the possibility their ships are blockaded in the region. The US and India also hold annual naval drills in the Indian Ocean, known as Exercise Malabar, which Japan joined in 2015.

Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping has often spoken of an “Asia for Asians,” an ostensible rebuke of America’s role in regional affairs. The subtle reformation from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is clearly designed to curtail China’s self-styled hegemony over the continent.

Indeed, some described the original Quadrilateral as the “Asian NATO.” Others saw it as a counterbalance to the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization, now an eight-member Eurasian political and security bloc.

An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP/Stringer

Lastly, the use of Indo-Pacific seeks to affirm India as a major pillar of regional security. In the past, the subcontinent was viewed as an outlier in the Asia-Pacific, with the Indian Ocean a dividing line between South and East Asian affairs.

India’s ascendancy to a major regional player is clearly supported by Trump’s White House. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of building a new century “strategic partnership” with India during a speech last month in Washington.

“Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future,” he said, before confirming the Indo-Pacific’s specific anti-China focus.

“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order,” Tillerson said. “China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for.”

When quadrilateral talks first began in 2007, there were claims New Delhi wasn’t entirely behind the notion, concerned about overreaching itself geopolitically. Today, however, India appears more willing to take a forceful stance against Chinese expansionism.

New Delhi’s relations with Tokyo have also improved in recent years, while a major security agreement was signed last year with Canberra. Those strengthening ties strike a sharp contrast with India’s skirmish with China earlier this year on the Doklam plateau, which lies on the border between China and Bhutan.

A Chinese soldier (L) next to an Indian soldier at the Nathula border crossing between India and China in India’s northeastern Sikkim state in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta

The two sides eventually agreed to an “expeditious disengagement” of their troops in August. The two sides last fought a border war in the Himalayas in 1962, a conflict China resoundingly won. The two sides have since adopted an “agree-to-disagree” policy along their shared 3,500-kilometer border, parts of which each nation contests.

Geopolitics, however, have raised the stakes. China is now a major financial and political backer of India’s historic foe, Pakistan. New Delhi is also concerned that its amiable neighbors, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are now becoming drawn into China’s orbit through its One Belt One Road initiative.

So how will the counterbalancing Quadrilateral move forward? This week’s talks at Asean represent a starting point, though there is not yet any public commitment to creating a formal organization.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that “the participants committed to continuing quadrilateral discussions and deepening co-operation on the basis of shared values and principles.” Some see that as paving the way for the four nations to organize regular leaders’ summits, or move forward in developing four-way military exercises.

There are risks, however. Compared to 2007, when the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was first held, China is now far more economically, militarily and geopolitically powerful.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his wife Cheng Hong before an official luncheon at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

“Beijing is in a better position today to undermine the Indo-Pacific vision than it has ever been,” wrote Rohan Mukherjee, assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

Mukherjee went on to write that both Japan and Australia rely on China for about 20% of their trade, which might prevent them from taking a firm anti-China position in the strategic realm, particularly if Beijing threatened retaliatory trade measures.

Analysts also note that there is no cross-party support for quadrilateral cooperation among Australia’s squabbling political parties, which might once again jeopardize talks.

Another concern is how committed the Trump White House is to the quadrilateral vision. His visit to Beijing this month reaffirmed his relationship with President Xi Jinping is close, a potential stumbling point in realizing any Indo-Pacific vision.

Moreover, Trump’s preference for bilateral arrangements is well-known, though his defense and diplomatic officials are certainly more open to multilateral tracks. His withdrawal in January from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact has raised questions about America’s future economic role in the region.

For the Indo-Pacific vision to evolve into an effective counterweight to China’s recent regional rise, it will require a committed and engaged America. So far Trump’s use of ‘Indo-Pacific’ over ‘Asia-Pacific’ is just another buzzword in his often contradictory messaging towards Asia.

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