Donald Trump begins 12-day Asia trip, Japan first port of call
New Delhi: US President Donald Trump began a visit to Asia on Sunday, landing in Japan to underscore US commitment to a region that his administration is increasingly referring to as the “Indo-Pacific”—something China is watching with increasing wariness.
The high point of the trip is expected to be Trump presenting “the US vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region” in a speech in Vietnam on 10 November, the White House said in a statement ahead of the visit. It comes months after Trump announced US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a 12-nation trade pact clinched in 2016—aimed at bolstering the US position in the Asia-Pacific region, where Chinese influence is seen as growing.
Analysts and policymakers in India are closely watching the 3-14 November Asia visit, that will see Trump stop off in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines besides Japan—the longest trip by a US President to the region in two decades, according to reports.
Of particular interest to India is the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” to refer to the vast expanse of land and sea spanning Australia to India.
“The references to Indo-Pacific are not entirely new,” said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, who also served as India’s ambassador to the US. “But what is different is the change in emphasis in the Trump administration which seems determined on a more muscular approach to the region,” he said.
A Washington Post report recently pointed out that US national security adviser H.R. McMaster, briefing reporters ahead of Trump’s Asia visit, had said that the US President “has placed 43 calls to Indo-Pacific leaders” since he took office. Trump also used the term in public remarks at a cabinet meeting last week, it said.
“The increasing references to Indo-Pacific come as India is seen as a key economy in the region and a major market for the US,” Mansingh said. “There is also the aggressive rise of China and security concerns vis-a-vis North Korea (over its nuclear and missile plans)” Mansingh said.
Along with Japan and Australia, “it is seen as important to co-opt India as part of the security architecture in Asia” that will guarantee stability in Asia and the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, Mansingh said.
During a visit to India in June 2012, then US defence secretary Leon Panetta spoke of India as the “linchpin” of the US’ then newly announced “Pivot to Asia” strategy. But one of the clearest enunciations came in the 2017 India-US joint statement which described India and the US as ”Democratic Stalwarts in the Indo-Pacific Region”—an idea that was substantially expanded by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in a speech last month at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“We hope the collaboration among relevant countries could comply with the trend of times, which refers to peace, development, cooperation and shared benefits, and conform to the prospect of... common security and development,” the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing said in a statement on Sunday.
“We hope it would be beneficial for improving the mutual trust among countries and regions, and at the same time, safeguard and promote peace, tranquillity and prosperity within the area, without targeting or damaging a third party’s interest,” it said.
In his recent remarks Tillerson referred to India, saying “it makes perfect sense that the United States at this time should seek to build on the strong foundation of our years of cooperation with India. It is indeed time to double down on a democratic partner that is still rising, and rising responsibly, for the next 100 years.”
On China, the US top diplomat said that “while rising alongside India” it had “done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nation’s sovereignty.”
Tillerson’s remarks drew a sharp response from China, with its envoy in the US Cui Tiankai last week stating that no one could “contain” China now. The reference was to Tillerson’s call for a quadrilateral arrangement between India, US, Japan and Australia to ensure stability in the “Indo-Pacific” region.
India on its part said it was “open to working with like-minded countries on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint.” Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar told reporters last week that India was “not rigid in this regard. Because of our broad acceptability as a country, there are a number of such initiatives which we are part of.”
Mansingh noted that India’s response had undergone a change “from being uncomfortable about being seen as too close to the US to joining hands with the US.”
“The Indian position has changed due to an aggressive China and its experience at Doklam,” said Mansingh referring to a 73-day military stand-off between India and China on the Bhutanese plateau of Dokalam that ended on 28 August. “It will take 10-15 years before India can confidently say it can militarily face up to an adversary like China. In the interim, we will need to be part of a collective security architecture” of like-minded countries, Mansingh said.
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