How solid is Donald Trump’s Asia strategy?
President Donald Trump’s tweet on Saturday on the US support of anti-government demonstrations in Iran has underscored America’s continued course of regime change in Asia, and everywhere else where the country’s politics do not follow the US scripts.
This echoes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s earlier statement of the US support of “those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government.”
Iran has long been a thorn in America’s side, up to the point of Trump’s insistence in October on using the term “Arabian Gulf” in place of “Persian Gulf” while announcing plans to decertify the Iran nuclear deal. The hostile rhetoric had actually helped hardliners in Iran to close ranks even while escalating tensions in the region.
Equally, the announcement of the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel sent shockwaves around the world. The decision signaled de facto denunciation of the United Nations Security Council resolution on East Jerusalem as a future capital of the would-be Palestinian state. When the UN General Assembly near-unanimously rejected the move, Washington’s representative responded with unprecedented blackmail of UN members, as did the US government – by slashing US$285 million off the UN operating budget.
The United States’ open embrace of the Israeli right-wing agenda of squeezing Palestinians off the occupied territories goes hand in hand with the de facto backing of the Saudi government responsible for full-scale aggression against neighboring Yemen. The unconditional acknowledgement of Jerusalem as an undivided capital of the Jewish state portends further marginalization of Palestinians, if not their permanent eviction from their ancestral lands. The conspicuous failure to prevent the humanitarian disaster in Yemen against the background of factual financial and military support of the Saudis belies the presumed US concern with human rights in the region.
The United States’ open embrace of the Israeli right-wing agenda of squeezing Palestinians off the occupied territories goes hand in hand with the de facto backing of the Saudi government responsible for full-scale aggression against neighboring Yemen
These developments bear significance for politics in East Asia and even beyond – the whole region that the Trump administration wants to call “Indo-Pacific.” First, the plan to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem affects the US credibility as a peacemaker. Second, it shows a strategy of foreign policy that is ill-conceived and tilted toward solutions based on force and not diplomacy. Such an approach increases unpredictability of US international behavior. This is directly relevant to potential escalation on the Korean Peninsula.
Choosing easy solutions there could lead to an all-out war in East Asia. Such US partners as Japan or South Korea must feel really alarmed with the ease the White House has shown in deliberately escalating tensions in the Middle East, even while multiple wounds of America’s previous interventions there are still festering.
Trump’s politics will undoubtedly cause more deaths in Israel itself and the occupied territories. A still larger disaster could strike if Israel is encouraged to attack Iran, or if the US does it on its own. US actions in East Asia may similarly portend a tragedy for both Koreas. The close proximity of that theater to both Russia and China means dangerous balancing on the edge of World War III.
America’s attempts to refer to the Asia-Pacific region as “Indo-Pacific” will not create new realities on the ground. Just as the Persian Gulf will not become any less Persian because of the desires of Washington or Riyadh, saying goodbye to “Asia-Pacific” a million times will not detract a single bit from the geopolitical and geo-economic realities that make this region what it is.
The practical intent behind the US rhetorical exercises is to tie India to an America-led alliance implicitly aimed against China and Russia. However, India already rubs shoulders with both Russia and China in a number of international clubs where rewards more realistically outweigh risks. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are much closer to home both literally and metaphorically, the BRICS’ global span notwithstanding. The benefits of the rhetorical “Indo-Pacific” are marginal, but the risks of antagonizing neighbors are many.
This would matter less if the US could demonstrate responsible policies toward the region. Unfortunately, such policies are lacking at present. Indian observers have noted that the new National Security Strategy of the United States “is striking for its unvarnished criticism of China’s political, economic and security policies and absence of any effort to balance blunt strictures with perspectives of constructive cooperation.”
America’s Russia-bashing campaign has approached the intensity of the neo-McCarthyist witch-hunt, with a leaked e-mail indicating anyone “of Russian nationality or Russian descent” may now be subject to Senate investigation. US efforts to destabilize Iran could affect the whole of South Asia. This cannot but worry India.
Under the circumstances, Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” vision may prove, at best, wishful thinking and at worst, an attempt to subvert a precarious geopolitical balance in Asia. Either way, a solid strategy for the region it is not.