Recent US moves reflect its shifting focus to Indo-Pacific
The administration of US President Donald Trump sent out confusing signals soon after coming to office by threatening to withdraw the US from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The administration also slapped sanctions against Iran and Russia in a bid to coerce and prevent them from adopting strategies contrary to Washington’s interests.
Of late, Washington seems poised to disengage militarily from Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. This apart, President Trump’s decision to erect a wall against neighbor Mexico to prevent migration has precipitated the country into a temporary domestic political chaos.
However, there are clear indications that the administration will maintain its influence in the Middle East through its Arab Gulf allies. For instance, the administration has not only been lobbying for maintaining arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, President Trump has admired Riyadh’s willingness to contribute to reconstruction efforts in Syria. He said: “Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors.”
Amid perceptible disagreements within the administration, the decision seems to be based on the realization of America’s long military entanglements claiming substantial amount of economic resources with mounting troop casualties in the region without palpable benefits and solutions at sight. It is in this light that the administration’s decision to draw up plans to remove approximately 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan as well as all 2,000 from Syria must be understood.
On the other side, the administration has clearly adopted measures to enhance its role and contain Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The administration not only articulated an innovative geographical expression for the “Asia-Pacific” by renaming it “Indo-Pacific’’ and underlined the centrality of India to the region but containment of China and formation of a group of allies became central to its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Indicating positive engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives with the objective of casting the US as a trustworthy partner in the Indo-Pacific region in July and some days later he pledged to provide $300 million in new security funding for the region.
Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in July, “Australia, the United States and Japan have announced a trilateral partnership to invest in projects … that would build infrastructure, address development challenges, increase connectivity, and promote economic growth.”
The belief that the Trump administration on the lines of “America first” thinking would hamper the alliance system is refuted by its stress on the formation of a formidable alliance system in the Indo-Pacific. The administration concluded a so-called 2+2 meeting with India on September 6 that devoted more time to discussions on the American imperative of shaping the contours of Indo-Pacific policy and intended to bring India closer to the US in sharing similar viewpoints as regards their role and aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region.
In Washington’s perception, New Delhi was a reluctant partner in the overall American strategy to strengthen the US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral format primarily aimed at containing Chinese influence. The Trump administration seemed poised to inspire and recruit stable partners in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of rising prominence of the Chinese role under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Signing of the defense pact known as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) on the eve of the 2+2 dialogue, while facilitating Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting-edge and high-end secured communication equipment from the US, was primarily aimed at allowing interoperability between the US and Indian armed and naval forces and enabling India to put Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean and Himalayas under close surveillance.
The two countries also agreed to conduct tri-service military exercise during the dialogue. Forging ahead with Indo-US strategic relations, the American leadership granted India Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) status with an objective to ease export controls over sales of high-technology product, which has so far been applicable only to its NATO allies.
On the other side, the Trump administration indicating a low priority for the Afghan engagement (Islamabad was previously considered central to Washington’s Afghan war and peace strategy) extended its suspension of security assistance to Pakistan as Islamabad failed to act against terrorism as per the American convictions.
While the leadership in Pakistan was reeling under economic crisis and poised to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund, the Trump administration expressed its unwillingness to assist Islamabad in securing any loans from the IMF to repay Chinese loans. The administration remained cautious as to Beijing’s rising geopolitical influence under its BRI, which it believed could rise to global prominence if unchecked.
The administration continued to show its disapproval of the Chinese BRI over issues from rising indebtedness among participating countries to lack of transparency and disregard for an open and inclusive approach on sustainable financing. Further, it took to stiff trade restrictions to check Beijing’s growing economic clout allegedly by illegitimate means, which took the form of a trade war between the two great powers.
The Trump administration made efforts at attaining breakthroughs in the process of denuclearization of North Korea and ushering in peace on the Korean Peninsula arguably to concentrate more on containing Chinese influence. The administration meanwhile announced its decision to withdraw from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, indicating its preference for a comprehensive pact that included Russia, the United States and China, and US national security adviser John Bolton was noticed saying in Moscow that Russia had been violating the INF Treaty for years and rising powers such as China meant that it was a “new strategic reality out there.”
It is worthwhile mentioning that the Indo-Pacific region is not only rich in natural resources, especially hydrocarbons that fuel the industrial engines of the world’s economies, it is also emerging as a center of international trade and investment by throwing up a large market of nearly half of the world’s population. There are in fact many reports that predict that by 2050, half of the world’s top 20 economies will be in the Indo-Pacific and countries like India, China, Indonesia and Japan will be among the top five economies in the world.