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Opinion

The Indo-Pacific after Donald Trump

Bipartisan consensus toward China the enduring legacy of the last four years

| North America
The proposed appointment of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific coordinator will do much to calm anxieties.   © Getty Images

Bilahari Kausikan is former Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Indo-Pacific is now established in the diplomatic and strategic lexicon. Yet Indo-Pacific is still very much a Rashomon term -- after the short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Its meaning depends on the perspective of the user.

Nothing is more important than the meaning which the United States places on the term. Thus when President-elect Joseph Biden used "secure and prosperous" rather than the more usual "free and open" to describe the Indo-Pacific in his first communications with the leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and India, it evoked a certain nervousness as the region awaited further clarification.

One should not over-read the change of adjectives. Every new administration tries to distinguish itself from its predecessor. That is understandable. Still, after four tumultuous years and after President Donald Trump's disgraceful incitement of a riot on Capitol Hill, some in the incoming Biden administration could be tempted to think that behaving differently from Trump is enough. But just not being Trump is not a strategy. The proposed appointment of Kurt Campbell, well-known and respected throughout the region, as Indo-Pacific coordinator will do much to calm anxieties.

The unusually early declassification and release of the only lightly redacted cabinet memorandum entitled "U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific," drafted in 2017 and endorsed by Trump in early 2018, was also a welcome reminder that the Biden administration will inherit a coherent, comprehensive, and realistic strategy. The document dispels the myth that the Trump administration had no strategy. Rather, the problem was the president ignoring and disrupting the strategy his officials had crafted.

The assumptions, interests, desired end-states, and actions in the 10-page document previously classified "secret -- not for release to foreign nationals," have an enduring and nonpartisan quality. It contains nothing that any experienced foreign policy practitioner like Kurt Campbell should fundamentally disagree with. There is no need for the Biden administration to reinvent the wheel. A former Trump administration official has said that early declassification was intended to reassure partners that the U.S. "wasn't going to fade away" and insofar as partners agreed with the assumptions, interests, goals and actions, to galvanize the new administration to continue them.

In his covering note, then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster made clear that the U.S. would "adopt a clear-eyed approach to China." That there is now a bipartisan consensus toward China is the enduring legacy of the last four years. Significantly, the strategic framework's proposed "lines of effort" leads with an emphasis on alliances and partnerships in which what has come to be called the Quad has a prominent role. India is also placed before China. These were deliberate choices of priority according to the former Trump official.

Even if their president often made it difficult in practice, Trump's officials clearly recognized that dealing with China with clear-eyes requires working with allies and friends. In defense strategy, the goals of denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the first island-chain in a conflict and "defending the first island-chain states, including Taiwan [and] dominating all domains outside the first island-chain" emphasizes the importance of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu, and the South China Sea and implicitly underscores that preserving American primacy must be a collective effort, with Japan having a special role.

The incoming administration should pay particular attention to the section on diplomacy with China. While making clear that the U.S. will cooperate with China when "beneficial," it criticizes "past diplomacy" as "often broad and shallow, which suits China's interests." The former Trump official explained that when they took office, they found almost every agency had many more people devoted to engaging their Chinese counterparts than meeting with potential partners and friends.

These activities lacked specific goals or were counterproductive -- the Pentagon was apparently even teaching the Chinese how to do aircraft carrier operations -- and gave the bureaucracy a vested interest in avoiding any friction in relations with China as an end in itself.

A J-15 fighter jet prepares for a takeoff on Liaoning in April 2018: the Pentagon was teaching the Chinese how to do aircraft carrier operations.   © Imaginechina/AP

Former Secretary of State George Shultz has described diplomacy as tending a garden. This is true. But gardening must have a purpose -- to grow vegetables or even just making the neighbors envy your flowers. Shultz also reportedly asked newly appointed American ambassadors to show him their country on a globe. When they pointed to Chad or Romania or Bangladesh or some other country, he reminded them that their country was the United States of America. Only the most superficial sort of diplomat anywhere thinks that diplomacy is art for art's sake.

The weakest parts of the strategic framework are on North Korea and Southeast Asia. Therein lie important lessons.

It is not possible to "convince the Kim regime that the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons." But however incoherently, Trump did restore the credibility of American power and thus deterrence with North Korea. Pyongyang has suspended the testing of ICBMs. But recent statements by Kim Jong Un suggest that he may be preparing to probe the Biden administration to see if it is going to be Obama 2.0.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations' centrality is referred to "as a core component of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy." But the actions to achieve the objective of reinforcing and promoting "ASEAN's central role in the region's security architecture" are primarily bilateral rather than regional: deepening U.S. relationships with Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, and reinforcing "Japan's proactive leadership to amplify U.S. strategic goals in Southeast Asia."

The onus is clearly on ASEAN to prove its worth. This is not likely to change in the Biden administration.

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